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Big Data: Power, Potential, and Perils

We live in the era Big Data. Its algorithms pervade our lives--shaping our purchases, our finances, our health care, our education, our communities, our public policy. Armed with phones, computers, and countless other devices, society has produced more data in the past two years—a zettabyte—than the prior span of human civilization. Yet the promise of Big Data lies not only in quantity, but in the quality of our analyses and the foresight of our applications. Is Big Data the future of scientific inquiry? Are we giving too much power to algorithms, seeking large-scale patterns, with the risk of losing the core of our humanity? Join us to explore the potential and perils of Big Data. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

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JOHN HOCKENBERRY, JOURNALIST: Science and story, shouldn’t it be story and science? I mean story preceded science right? I mean, story is-there were stories before there was science. I mean, think of tonight, right? It was a dark and stormy night. I mean, correct, it’s pretty dark and stormy out there. Say it together. It was a dark and stormy night, you know, so it’s a perfect night for this event and I’m glad you’re all indoors and feeling safe. And you’re all science readers, correct? Yes. Yes. Are you aspiring science writers? Yes, of course you are. Yes, there are some in here. All right, well, you’ll get a chance to exercise those aspirations, and to explore your joy of reading in this event tonight. And it’s great being here at the science festival. I’ve been here for years now and it’s just so wonderful to be on the NYU campus and to experience what started out as a strange sort of fringy bunch of alien abductees who would come in, it seemed like and payed for these events.

And now it’s so clear what the science festival is confirmed is that science is a very mainstream, it’s an entertainment mode, this festival, but it’s also a celebration of the common language of science that I think we all have and share and helps us to understand our search for the truth. And since as we know, politics doesn’t work anymore, science is a really good alternative. And so we run into science as a refuge, I think from some of the alternatives of storytelling. I think to think of science as a story or a story to be told and not simply as teaching people science. It’s basically the story of science, the story of humans and science. There’s the story that science represents itself. Once upon a time, there was a bang. Oh really? What kind of a bang? It was a big bang, you know, and there you go. Physics starts right off there. And the idea that physics can be told as a story. And then there is the story of our understanding of physics. All of these make for dramatically interesting and many leveled possibilities. In the literature of non-fiction, and of course there’s also the literature of fiction that has as its base, science. So last year I did a great talk with a mixture of science fiction writers and non fiction science writers and it was difficult to tell them apart. At one point Neal Stephenson was having a great discussion with a writer who only talks about journalism and it turns out that Neal Stephenson is a news freak. And they had a great discussion about what the basis of truth was in the news. And one was a fiction writer and one was a non-fiction writer.

And their interaction was absolutely fascinating. And it’s funny because Neal Stephenson talked about there’s like bullshit science fiction and there’s real science fiction, science fiction that’s true. How can science fiction be true? How can science fiction be false? How can science fiction that’s false be different from science fiction that’s true? And of course there is a difference. And as the audiences for science fiction have grown, the expectations for the veracity of the scientific principles that are evoked in science fiction is much more rigorous than it used to be. You know, it used to just be like, you haven’t. What is it? What’s a tri-quarter? What does it do? You just hold it over somebody and they get better. You know, nowadays that doesn’t fly. You can’t just do that, you know. What is it? You know, it’s the affordable care act.

You just hold it over people and they get better. So there are much more rigorous expectations on the part of audiences. So this is a great time to be a science writer. It is also a fantastic time to be a science reader. I’m a bit of a science writer myself. I studied mathematics at the University of Chicago, but then became a journalist and there’s some journalists, friends of mine here at the festival. They may or may not be here tonight, but, some of my journalist friends who told me they were coming tonight. It’s just an indication of just how supportive journalists are here in New York. Said, you know, we’re coming tonight. We want to make sure that you don’t suck. So I wasn’t planning on sucking, but if I do at any point suck tonight, please let me know. Because I just hate that. I so hate it. Our four science writers are women, which is no statement I want to say right out in front, and this is another indication of the great time that we’re living in both science and in letters.

[00:05:13] HOCKENBERRY: This isn’t a women in science writing panel at all. These are people who have books out now that are representing totally different fields. And also they intersect in certain ways and they’re fabulous writers and researchers and scientists and curiosity seekers in their own rights. And let’s welcome our first guest, who’s an author, who’s been writing about science and nature and human biology for three decades, almost three decades. Let’s just say that. Author of several books, most recently, the New York Times best seller, The Genius of Birds. A contributor to Scientific American, National Geographic, and many other publications. The recipient of the National Endowment for the arts literature fellowship in non-fiction, a Bunting fellowship, and a grant from the Sloan Foundation. Please welcome Jennifer Ackerman.  Perhaps the New York Times best selling author of The Confidence Fame helped you to keep from being shafted by one con or another. She’s also written Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, contributing writer at the New Yorker hosts the weekly “Is That BS?” segment for Slate, the podcast The Jist, PhD in psychology from Columbia. Please welcome Maria Konnikova. Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University who has contributed to our understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions and gravitational waves, author and winner of the Pen Bingham prize, her recent book is Black Holes, Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space. It’s a spectacular read. Please welcome Janna Levin. Our final guest tonight is an absolute rock star, and rolling writer and journalist, bestselling author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Grunt is her latest book, The Curious Science of Humans at War. It comes out on Tuesday. Please welcome Mary Roach. So Roach, you’ve also written Bombed, right?

MARY ROACH, AUTHOR: Yeah. You forgot that one.

HOCKENBERRY: That’s not about pool, right? It’s not about basketball. That’s about sex. And you also wrote one of my favorites, Packing for Mars, which violated the Roach principle of single word titles.

ROACH: I know, we tried. We tried so hard. We thought, Void.

HOCKENBERRY: But now you could do it. Now you can do it. If you were writing that book today, you could just say, Damon. So welcome to all of you. I want to say that I’m friends in various degrees with all of you. You’ve been participants on my radio shows or in various live events and I am full of respect and fandom. Oh, first of all, let’s talk about curiosity for a moment. What, what’s on your mind these days? What’s- what is thrilling you about either the world, I mean, you’ve all got projects that are right now that you’re talking about. If you want to talk about those, that’s completely fine because that’s important. And I want to remind everybody, books are for sale after this event. OK. And it’s the books of these authors and there’s a lot of them. And if you don’t want to like stand out in the rain, buy a book or two or six, please. I’m an author. I know how great that is. So, uh, tell me what you’re curious about Janna.

JANNA LEVIN, PHYSICIST, AUTHOR:Well, this is interesting. So this book just came out and it’s this moment when you finished something and yet don’t feel stressed that you have to be doing something new quite yet, you know. So this is kind of a fun phase because I’m kind of just noodling around and see what’s going to get some traction. Mostly astrophysics though, not another book right now.

HOCKENBERRY: What’s a noodle?

LEVIN: So I work a lot on what happens when something falls into a black hole. So there are dead stars that don’t quite become black holes. They’re giant magnets, neutron stars with huge magnetic fields a trillion times that of the earth. And they orbit a black hole in the final stages of their life together and they make an electronic circuit out of this waving battery around the black hole. And so I had been calculating what kind of electronic circuit and how much power comes out and could you power in New York City with it and I realized you’d have to like make up the sun the black hole and use like the largest magnets from the large Hadron collider to power New York City for like a day. But you’d have to use basically all the natural resources of the solar system. So it’s not really a good bet, but it’s not efficient. But neutron stars are much, much bigger magnets. So if this happens in our galaxy or in another galaxy, it’s something we could, we could see light up, like a switch was thrown right in the final stages before the neutron star falls into the black hole.

HOCKENBERRY: All right. What’s your noodling? You actually, let’s periodicity. We should say than Janna because you’re doing a daily, a podcast or a weekly podcast on Slate and working for the New Yorker. What’s an equivalent sort of curiosity noodle in your brain?

[00:10:47] MARIA KONNIKOVA, AUTHOR: Well, one of the things that I’ve been fascinated by for a while and that I’m just really interested to see the future of is what neuroscience can shed light on in the next several decades. So neuroscience right now it’s just, it’s in its infancy. It’s like astronomy was under Galileo basically. And so we just have so far to go and so many things are changing and you have neuroscience findings from last year that are no longer valid this year because…


KONNIKOVA: Well for instance, some of the things that we knew or we thought we knew about how memory works and there are some wonderful researchers…

HOCKENBERRY: So just forget those.  That’s so cheap. That’s how my mind works.

KONNIKOVA: That’s absolutely right. There’s one paper, there’s this wonderful researcher, Rus Poldrack, whose work I really admire and he said, this is a paper that came out a little over a decade ago. He said, guys, I’m not retracting it because I didn’t do anything wrong, but now that I have all of these new methods, I realized that my results were not what I thought they were, that it might have been an artifact, and so I’m going to be redoing all of this. So please put this paper that’s been cited hundreds of times on hold. And I am just so interested to see once we get a little bit further, what are we going to learn about the mind? What are we going to be able to learn about how humans think? And I think that we just have a wide open horizon right now and in the right hands, it’s going to be beautiful.

HOCKENBERRY: And your first language is Russian.


HOCKENBERRY: And you’re of Russian parentage. I was born in Moscow.

KONNIKOVA: Yes, I was born in Moscow.

HOCKENBERRY: And why-what is it about- I mean, it seems to me that, that Russians have a particular affinity for psychology and they want to know what’s going on in the brain. I mean from Dostoevsky who wasn’t really a tenured faculty member anywhere, but who wrote some of the most profound stuff on psychology that’s ever been written. It seems that the Russians have a sense of, “boy things suck. I really want to figure it out.” That’s a psychology kind of.

KONNIKOVA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Russia is, has always been a miserable place. Are Russians are pretty much miserable people and when you’re miserable, you want to figure out, you know, what’s going on.

HOCKENBERRY: Yeah, we love that. But I think in, in many ways the curiosity that comes from the angst that we associate with Russian, has produced great literature. It’s produced great science. It’s produced extraordinary psychology. What do you study in psychology? I mean, you’ve talked about neuroscience. I suspect the psychology leads you to neuroscience.

KONNIKOVA: Absolutely. So I actually studied self control. And what is it? How do we make decisions, especially when we’re making decisions in risky and uncertain environments, which is basically what life is. I mean, life is a game of incomplete information where we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s ambiguous, it’s uncertain. And we hate that. I mean, the human mind hates ambiguity and hates uncertainty. That’s one of the reasons that clouds work so well. And so I studied, you know, what happens to people who are normally very good at making decisions when you put them in an environment where bad things happen and you find out that really smart, intelligent people go haywire and don’t learn as quickly as they should be learning. And I think it’s really interesting to see what-that when you put someone in a natural life-like situation, we don’t really do as well as we do in the neat confines of a laboratory where we know exactly what is expected of us and life’s messy.

HOCKENBERRY: Indeed. Indeed. These two members of our panel are scientists and writers. Our other two members are more of the curiosity, the curious who found science as a, as a place to tell really interesting stories. Jennifer, birds are geniuses. Kind of knew that, but now we really know that.

JENNIFER ACKERMAN, AUTHOR: Well that’s right. For a long time to knock on birds was not that they were geniuses, that they were stupid and you know, nut brained and beady eyed. And they had brains that were so small and primitive, they, it couldn’t possibly be capable of anything but the simplest mental processes and the story there is that no, that’s all wrong. And scientists really in the past decade have discovered that the birds are a lot smarter than we ever imagined. In fact, there are some birds that are much more like our primate relatives than they are like their reptilian relatives.

[00:15:38] HOCKENBERRY: So you’re saying reptiles are really stupid.

ACKERMAN: Relatively speaking. And the truth of the matter is that in terms of, of brain size to body size, many bird species have a relatively large brains, just as we do. And also though those brains may be you know, relatively small in size, they’re really dense with neurons and dense with connections between neurons, going back to the neuroscience. And that’s where we’re understanding that the, the really the real intelligence lies. It’s in the pathways, the connections between neurons. So bird brains may be organized differently from our brains. They don’t have our nice seven layered cortex.

HOCKENBERRY: You wish they had a seven layered cortex?

ACKERMAN: They may, they actually have a more efficient design, they have- their neurons are in a bulb like a clove of garlic. And it’s sort of people-scientists compare it with two different processing systems like a Mac and a PC, you know, they have a different way of processing, but the outcome is similar. So they have actually very, very efficient brains and they are capable of really tremendously complex behavior. They can craft their own tools, they can solve very complex problems, they can do basic math and they understand basic principles of physics, and they have very nuanced and sophisticated social skills. Like, for instance, they have a very well-developed sense of fairness. So birds do not like to do something for a lesser reward than their peer might receive. And they also have a sense of reciprocity. So they will share with you as long as they know that you’ll share with them. And they, they console one another. They have even possible-they make grieve one another’s losses. And then they also do some, I would call it just they have deceptive behaviors and manipulative behaviors of each other.

HOCKENBERRY: We’ll talk a little more about the specific evidence for this complete malarkey that you’re…and the travels that you went on all over the world to find the specific evidence. And since I asked are there-two members who’ve spoken moments ago, what are you thinking about? What are you noodling about that’s anticipating possibly your next project?

ACKERMAN: I mean, one of the aspects that grew out of this book is the idea that we’re you know, we really consider ourselves separate from nature in lots of ways. And I’m really interested in how we’re discovering how misguided that is really that, you know, we have brains that we thought we thought we were the only tool makers. We thought we were, you know, had all these, these kinds of intelligence that are in fact now we understand are shared by other organisms. We’re also made of other organisms. We have this incredible microbial life. That makes us one, you know, and the genetic and molecular and cellular similarities between humans and other species. I love that stuff. That kind of breaks down our thinking of ourselves as some kind of special and separate species.

HOCKENBERRY: And indeed, it’s not simply a matter of dispelling typical human arrogance. It’s also an assistance to us in understanding how we should respond to climate change. I mean in many ways, our separation from the natural world is an impediment to us understanding how to respond to climate change. Yes, we are part of nature. That doesn’t get us off the hook. Our free will isn’t out of the picture, but it does help us to understand that together with nature we may find some accommodation.

[00:20:04] ACKERMAN: Absolutely.

HOCKENBERRY: So you’re going to write that book that sort of blows out the human supreme being on the planet?

ACKERMAN: Well, it’s a thread that really interests me. I think it’s great, I think it’s great.

HOCKENBERRY: So Roach, we come to you as the- I mean, it seems to me your impulsive curiosity is closer to mine, where it’s like, what the hell is going on there? And that’s sort of where you begin. Tell me how curiosity leads some of your projects and since you’ve got a book just coming out now, what you’re going to be talking about now for many, many months. Do you have a noodle about sort of what the hell is going on there? Kind of a problem to solve?

ROACH: Well, I was actually, I was doing, it was the Terry Gross interview and Terry went into the-she actually has a very healthy curiosity for the gross and-it’s the names I guess perhaps. And she started asking me about, you know, do you find that like she said, why are you like this? What’s wrong? What’s wrong with, no, she didn’t say…

HOCKENBERRY: She always asks that. Terry always asks, so it’s like your parents and…

ROACH: Yeah, but it was funny because I said, well, you know, I never really thought about this, but my parents were much older. My father was 65 when I was born and my mother was 44, so I don’t, so perhaps the normal aging process and the things that go on, maybe that I was raised in the midst of drooping sagging sort of declining bodies and maybe that I don’t know, triggered something. Anyway, and she said…

HOCKENBERRY: So nice of her to bring that up.

ROACH: And then she did say, how old are you? Do you mind my asking? What do you see on yourself? And so I don’t need to go into that. But she said you should write a book about the normal-not about how to stay young and not about how to tweak the genome so that you don’t age, but what the heck is going on? Like why- what is a skin tag and what happens to the muscles and tissues and why do your eyes fade and I don’t know…

HOCKENBERRY: Terry, you need to get out more.

ROACH: But I think she’s, I mean I think it’s an interesting, interesting thing to think about but not for very long.

HOCKENBERRY: All right. So let’s talk about your particular book, Mary, because I think it’s very, very interesting. I think you decided to get into the scientific aspects of the military experience and I think a lot of people would think that, oh, she’s going to talk about drones. Oh, she’s going to talk about nuclear bomb. She’s going to talk about, you know, meals ready to eat. She’s, I mean, who knows, who knows what you’re going to talk about, but the way we imagine that the science of military involves with the science of killing. And why did you either not go there or did you start to go there and decided to move away from it, tell me the story.

ROACH: No, I never wanted to write about weapons and bombs. The discovery channel does a really good job of that. Wired magazine does a really great. I mean, they, the blowing up in the high tech and the drones. I mean, and it isn’t, you know, my books have always kind of focused on the human body and often in kind of extreme circumstances like being dead or being a person who’s come into a a laboratory to do sexual things so that science can include sexual physiology, which is a delightfully awkward scenario. And packing for Mars, which is putting human bodies in a realm through which they haven’t evolved, zero gravity, and no air and cold that can’t tolerate so you know, that. And combat is another one of those scenarios where you have extreme heat and extreme noise and sleep deprivation and all kinds of infectious diseases. So you’re putting human beings in a pretty intense and unusual environment. And then of course you have a military budget, so there’s lots of interesting labs to figure this stuff out and how to mitigate stuff. And it just seemed like a side of military- military science that hadn’t been covered that in most books about the military are either combat memoirs or histories or something more about the technology. So…

HOCKENBERRY: How did we win? Why did we lose, or boy, we’re going to win next time with this awesome badass piece of equipment.

ROACH: Yes, exactly.

HOCKENBERRY: What comes out from your book, which is completely amazing to me, is this sense of a humanistic quality that exists within the military that you found very deeply there, which has nothing to do with the mission or patriotism or anything to do with you know, ISIS and whether they’re bad or good and the kinds of things politicians say, but has everything to do with understanding what war is and why we should avoid it. This is an amazing lesson that you came to through a scientific inquiry. Tell me a little bit of that thread. The people that you’ve met along the way.

[00:25:35] ROACH: I started, I started the book, the reporting actually at what would become the last chapter. And I knew even before I went there that it probably would be the last chapter. And that is the armed forces medical examiner system, which is the military mortuary morgue in Dover where remains come back and all of the remains are autopsied with all the equipment that the life saving equipment in place so that they can systematically look at were things done right, could things have been done better? Could we have saved this person? And then they have these combat mortality conferences with like 70 or so people going case by case I’m looking at it. But anyway, what I was going to say is the people there, I mean we’re talking 6,000, I think, autopsies since 2000, early 2000’s anyway.


ROACH: They are, they hate war. They are military people, you know, the pathologist at the medical examiner who do this work or you know, I didn’t bring it up. I wasn’t going to try to needle people. Like how does this make you feel about the war? I mean, doesn’t it just. I was talking to this guy about the combat mortality conference and there were some of the photographs there on the, on his desk, and he said, you know, they don’t look real on the photographs, but in the back there, and he meant where they do the autopsies, he said it’s completely different there. These are, these are our kids and it makes you ask questions. And I didn’t even at that point, go like,  what questions? He just said like, is it worth it? I mean, so, you know, I spent two years sort of inside the military, but I didn’t really speak to a lot of fans of war.

HOCKENBERRY: You were talking at all levels. And the interesting thing to me here, or one of the interesting things is that while there is plenty of, is it worth it? Which is a question, and plenty of it’s not worth it, which is a feeling of extreme grief and remorse. But there’s also a sense of whether you’re Republican or Democrat or you know, hawk or dove. There is a yearning on the part of the military to have political leaders and people outside of the military take the intense cost of war, the deep cost of war, and I don’t mean the high cost of war because it’s a different thing. This profound cost of war into their calculations when they speak of whether we’re going to go to war or not and that is absent. And this is what they want and that’s a really striking, striking and worthy from an investigation from a journalist.

ROACH: Yeah. One of the places I went was Aberdeen proving ground, which they do a lot of testing of weapons but also the vehicles in which personnel travel around. And they were working on an essentially a crash test dummy, but for under body blasts. So you know a car crash dummy. You’re either thrown forward or you hit from the side or it’s a head on and the, you know, it’s this way and this way. Whereas when a bomb goes off under your vehicle, the force is coming up from below and there is no crash test dummy for that. So they’re developing one and when you develop a crash test dummy, whether it’s for cars or personnel carriers, you start with cadavers because you need, you know, the dummy will tell you how much force, but you need to know what will that force do to a body. So there’s some systematic work done with cadavers and at some point, this project, but the very last minute they were actually wiring these cadavers and someone at the Pentagon shut it down. And so I just don’t, you know, it was a question of personal ethics and I can’t have this happen anyways, a big stink. And finally they got it reinstated, et cetera. And this guy was telling me this story and he said, well one, he said that they finally went ahead the tests, the cadaver test went ahead and he said it’s the first cadaver a test I’ve seen where we had three and four star generals present and he said, and that’s what was great because they need to see what actually is going on inside these vehicles. Some of them don’t know, you know, and I said in the book that it’s like, yeah, let’s not worry so much about the dead. Let’s worry about the living.

HOCKENBERRY: Well they’ve seen Ironman. So they think…but that’s interesting even, and again, what your book states is that maybe just having them come is as important of a result as whatever data they got. In the sense of changing decisions, making more rational kinds of…

[00:30:36] ROACH: Right well being able to make that part of the equation. Whether or not they will make that part of the equation. At least there is now, you know, there will be a way to factor that in and use.

HOCKENBERRY: Is this science or is this just sentimental kind of Mary Roach sort of…

ROACH: Oh I’m so sentimental. I’m known as the sappy, sentimental America’s sweetheart.

HOCKENBERRY: It’s, do they think of this as science? Do they use scientific principles to, find the truth behind some of these more grizzly?

ROACH: Well sure the people doing the-I mean, the folks at Aberdeen, you mean? Or just…

HOCKENBERRY: General average. Let’s start with Aberdeen since we’re on that subject.

ROACH: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, the problem. Ah, yeah, they are scientists. They are bioengineers. The difficulty is that it takes, it’s, it’s, this is a project that’s already been going on for over a year and we’ll spend another year of systematically bringing cadavers in different, you know, different forces, et cetera. And by the, you know, who knows where the next conflict will be and what kind of horrible things will be shot at the vehicle. So once you work it out is it already obsolete?

HOCKENBERRY: Obsolete, exactly. And the fact that they’re just getting to the under blast studies on Humvees, you know, when Afghanistan has already been declared America’s longest war is an indication of the priorities perhaps.

ROACH: It’s a way for them to evaluate-they bought-they were buying a whole new fleet of vehicles and they had no way to evaluate them. They had contractors coming in saying, “see this fine, beautiful you know, there’s cup holders and everything are there.” But there’s like no way for them to say, well what’s going to happen if a, you know, a hundred pound ID goes off underneath it. What’s going to happen to the people inside? How do we know that? So they wanted some kind of a dummy baseline.

HOCKENBERRY: There’s a whole psychological dimension to the work that you did in this book, right? Write about the extreme sort of stresses that soldiers are under and how they measure that. We’ll talk about that in a minute. Let’s talk about some of the psychology that you studied in and, explain in your con book. What got you started on that?

KONNIKOVA: Well, the original impetus was actually a movie. I’m David Mamet’s House of Games. I watched it and I was fascinated by the main character, Lindsay Crouse, who’s very sophisticated, smart psychologist, best selling author, and falls for a long con. And I thought, well, that’s not how I normally think of victims. You know, I don’t think of them as psychologists. I mean as someone who really knows the ins and outs of human nature, who sees patients every day. So she is someone who should really know when someone’s deceiving her or when someone’s not telling her the truth. And yet she didn’t. And obviously this is fiction, but I think that there’s a lot of affinity between fiction and non-fiction, and I started researching how that happens. You know, how is it that very smart people become embroiled in these sorts of scenarios? And I realized that no one had ever really explored it and I just fell down a rabbit hole of this world. That then ate up three years of my life.

HOCKENBERRY: Kind of a long con.

KONNIKOVA: Yes, and my book is blank.

HOCKENBERRY: The science though in there brought you to interesting characters, both who are in the con world, and there’s great stories in your book of cons, but where’s the science?

KONNIKOVA: So the science is both in how the con artists are able to do what they do. So there’s a lot of, kind of the science of persuasion, but more importantly, it’s about the nature of belief and why we believe the things we do. What is it about human nature? What is it about the human mind that makes us so susceptible to con artists? And the funny thing is, it’s actually the title of this panel. It’s all about stories. It’s all about the human, the deep human need for story and for meaning and for narratives that make sense of the world. That makes sense of uncertainty. That’s what con artists provide. I think at the end of the day, they are the best storytellers I’ve ever met. I mean, that’s their livelihood. And it actually got me asking, you know, existential questions about my profession, you know, are journalists are writers, are we con artists in a way?

[00:35:04] HOCKENBERRY: They are. That’s settled. We are. Yeah. Let’s talk about the story business because I think, you know, it’s been, you know, I don’t know if look at, listened to Ted talks or you know, talk about some of the design and kinds of a sort of alternative wizardry of philosophy that’s sort of come out in the last decade or so. People always talk about story. It’s really everything’s a story. And I love that. I think it’s true, but I kind of don’t know why that it’s true. I don’t know what’s going on there. So I want to really try to give it a little more rigor, this idea of the story and why it’s important. You say that people need stories to give their life or maybe a moment in time, meaning. In the confidence realm, a con artist supplies a story for someone who wants something, be it money or whatever it is, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or whatever is under the three card Monte cup our card. And that person puts themselves in that story as the winner. Right? And so the idea is that the con artist manipulates the person to think that they’re a winner in that, oops, they’re actually a loser. Why is that an adaptive quality of humans? Why would that be an important quality? Because it sounds like it would be a vulnerability. That we’d all be conned and none of us would function.

KONNIKOVA: Well, actually, it ends up that one of the basic things that makes us so vulnerable to this is that we’re optimists. I mean, we’re a hopeful species. The reason that you wake up in the morning is because you think that today is going to be better than yesterday, that you think that you know the world is going to improve as you live in it because otherwise there’s no point, right? Why? Why are you going to get up out of bed if you know that today is going to be crappier than yesterday? The next day is going to be even crappier and oh my God, next year it’s really it’s really going to be something else.

HOCKENBERRY: Well I got up today because if I didn’t make it to this event, Tracy Day would kill me.

KONNIKOVA: Well, so there you go. So people have different motivations. But in general, you know, we as a species are optimistic. Con artists, what they do is they take advantage of that. Because we see the world in better terms than it actually is. Nobody sees themselves accurately. So nobody actually sees themselves the way they are. I think that I am smarter, funnier, more engaging than I actually am. If you ask someone else, they would probably rank me lower on all of these things that I ranked myself. And that’s very good because there’s one subset of the human population that is actually incredibly accurate, that doesn’t have this bias, and that’s the clinically depressed. So those are, those are the people.

HOCKENBERRY: There’s a lot of you out there are really feeling very empowered, right? Yeah. I have an accurate view of what I am, and boy does that stink. Well, at least you’re right. At least you’re correct.

KONNIKOVA: So, so it shows that it’s actually incredibly adaptive to have this veneer of positivity and to see things as better and to be more hopeful. But that’s the exact thing that makes us vulnerable to people selling us that version of the world. Because a con-artist doesn’t sell us the world as it is. They sell us the world as we want it to be. So first they listened to us and they profile us. This is the first part of a con is invisible to us. It’s the con artist studying what we want, what makes us tick, and then that’s the version of the world they sell. And so of course we believe it because it’s what we want.

HOCKENBERRY: See, I can’t imagine that Donald Trump takes that much time studying what it is that we want to be able to sell us the con that he’s got going. I mean, you said for a moment, and I’m only going to use Trump as an example here once and it’s going to be a serious example. And I do recall that we had you on the program right in the middle of Trump’s sort of final ascendance. The idea here is that we think of ourselves as better. If you’re not clinically depressed, than other people think of us. Now it seems to be Trump violates that because Trump clearly has a very healthy sense of himself, but his followers have an even outsized sense of his qualities of virtue and importance and significance and badass-ness or whatever. That mix it seems to me is what he’s got going in this political race. And I think there’s a real psychological dimension to it.

KONNIKOVA: Oh, absolutely, and the funny thing is this is exactly what happens with con artists. Their victims, not only don’t think they’re, they’re being conned, but will to the end defend them. So I talk to people. I studied cases in multiple cases with an s, not just one case, of victims who paid the legal fees of their deceiver when there was a trial. So after they had the evidence, after the con artist was brought to trial, they still stood by them and said, this is not a con artist, you know, this is for real. People really don’t like to think that they can be deceived. No one wants to think that they could be a victim of a con. And so are the hoops that we go through to rationalize what has happened to say no, no, I wasn’t conned. This is not a con artist. It was just bad luck or no, this person’s getting railroaded. There was this one guy, millions of dollars, thousands of victims over a decade of time. And every single victim thought it was a big government conspiracy.

[00:40:51] HOCKENBERRY: OK. So that explains why the more the rhetoric against someone like Trump, and we could be using other examples, but it’s, it’s, and I have no political opinion about Trump here. I think this is a psychological construct that we’re looking at. The more you say that Trump is wrong or a fraud or represents some con, the more the people go to government conspiracy to say that. So the rhetoric of opposition that tries to say he’s a fraud and he’s conning you, is likely to fail.

KONNIKOVA: It backfires. It actually has the exact opposite effect. It’s a blue black effect instead of a dampening effect. And it also, I think it also happens because just as we don’t respect victims of cons, that’s what I began with. We don’t respect victims of Trump. We talk down to them. We say, you know, how could you be so stupid and look at how Trump talks to them. He respects them. He says, you’re wonderful. You’re just like me. And look at how wonderful I am. So people…

HOCKENBERRY: It’s also the case that from their perspective, they view Hillary as having duped the supporters of the Democratic Party. It’s interesting that Bernie is a, is a different kind of phenomenon and he doesn’t have a mathematical likelihood of winning the nomination, but he’s certainly going to make a lot of trouble because that’s a different dynamic altogether. All right. Enough politics here. Great stuff. And we want to talk a little bit more about the, some of the other characters that you met in your investigations. In your travels, the most bizarre bird that you managed to meet. please tell us about him or her.

ACKERMAN: I assume you’re talking about the New Caledonian Crow?

HOCKENBERRY: Well, you know, the New Caledonia, I would say the Caledonian crow is a completely righteous, and awesome bird, but I’m a fan of the Kagu.

ACKERMAN: Oh, the Kagu. Yes. OK. So the New Caledonian Crow took me to New Caledonia, which is a little island in the South West Pacific between Australia and Fiji. And it’s very isolated, very remote. It’s beautiful. It’s just filled with primeval rain forests and beautiful blue water and very sparsely inhabited. So I went looking for New Caledonian crows, which are relatively common on the island. And I was in the rainforest where they’re supposed to be and I could hear some cawing in the canopy above and I couldn’t really see them and then I hear this, hiss coming from the ground and I looked down and there is this ghostly gray bird running at me, hissing, just, it’s so startling and running along the ground and I jumped back and it came very close to me. And then another one came out, hissing, running close to me. These birds are Kagus, they’re ground birds and they’re one of the hundred rarest birds on earth. And I had just stumbled across it when I talked with ornithologists now that they just say, oh my gosh, I can’t believe you just happened on a Kagu when you were looking for a crow.

HOCKENBERRY: It’s kind of like the Nobel Prize of birding.

ACKERMAN: Exactly. But, you know, it struck me that, that this Kagu seemed like it was on the opposite end of the spectrum from the New Caledonian Crow, which is arguably the smartest bird on the planet. Here was the Kagu running at me as a possible predator. And I thought, wow, that’s just not very bright. And so it looked to me like I had two ends of the spectrum there. But Kagu’s story is a little more complicated than that. It’s just it’s not stupid, but it’s adapted to an environment without ground predators. And so it doesn’t, you know, it’s just doing its thing, right? Right.

HOCKENBERRY: It has sort of a Sesame Street view of reality.

ACKERMAN: Well, the, the island had no mammal predators, no snakes until Captain Cook came and brought the natives, a couple of dogs. And that was the beginning of the end. The Kagu. That’s one of the reasons that it’s one of the rarest birds on the planet is because dogs have just decimated the populations.

[00:45:16] HOCKENBERRY: All right. Tell us about the New Caledonians.

ACKERMAN: So the New Caledonian crows are- some of you may have seen there’s a video that went viral not long ago with a bird named 007. And the video is- was an experiment by a young researcher at the University of Auckland, Alex Taylor and he set up an eight stage puzzle for this bird to complete and it involved, you know, pulling up a stick with a string and using that stick to poke into a little chamber that dropped some stones and the stones had to go into another chamber and at the end where there was a little piece of food and the bird had seen these different stages of the puzzle separately, but I didn’t never seen them in this order and not altogether like this. But in about two and a half minutes, this bird solves this eight stage puzzle and you just can’t believe it. It’s just a staggering thing to watch.

HOCKENBERRY: And the bird is just….

ACKERMAN: Yeah, well, exactly. What are you staring at? No it’s, uh, and the- so the New Caledonian Crow is an amazing problem solving bird. It is also, one of the great toolmakers on the planet. So it’s the only bird that really crafts it complex tools really on the order of the kind of tool making abilities of chimps and orangutans, those real tool-making smarties. And it makes a hook tool, which is very unusual, also the only animal on the planet other than humans to make a hook tool.

HOCKENBERRY: What does it use its hook tool for?

ACKERMAN: Well, good, good term because they actually make such good tools that they keep them and reuse them. And so that’s very unusual in the animal world.

HOCKENBERRY: Do they sell them to each other?

ACKERMAN: No but they do share occasional. They use the tools to, to get very protein rich grubs out of the tiny little holes in wood and at the base of plants.

ACKERMAN: They’re basically getting a food source that woodpeckers would ordinarily access, but there are no woodpeckers on the island. So, and the really interesting thing is that they learn, the juveniles learned from the parents over a long period of childhood, a couple of years. And you know, they, they start out as lousy tool makers, I mean really bad, they just make a mess of it and they put the wrong end in and they just don’t know what they’re doing. But over a period of two years they get to be very good. And in different parts of the island, there are different styles of tool making which are passed down over the generations. So that’s a really good definition of culture when you have the faithful transmission of tool design. So these birds are really quite amazing. And the big question, the big story that we need to find the end too is why this bird on this island, capable of doing something that no bird on any other place in the planet can do.


ACKERMAN: have some free time free of predators right now. I think that that’s a tooling around with tools, with your head down, you know, you got to make sure you’re not going to…

HOCKENBERRY: You have time, weather’s decent.

ACKERMAN: Weather’s decent, right. But the question is, is there something distinctive about the brains of these birds? The genes. This is what they’re just sorting out now.

HOCKENBERRY: Janna, the a cosmology world involves living in your own head to a certain extent, but also there’s lively and social kind of sharing involved, right? When I was at an event with you, you and two or three of your colleagues were sitting around talking about everything that was going on in the world of what LIGO was discovering gravitational waves, that sort of thing. And, there’s a very lively social scene in the world of trying to figure out what is actually going on at the extreme.

LEVIN: That’s what everyone thinks of physicists right? That they’re great socializers. Yeah, that’s the stereotype.  

HOCKENBERRY: Among themselves, yeah. I mean, you get an artist in there and, well, although, you know, we were actually at an artist studio. You actually have a fellowship at an artist’s studio in Brooklyn, which is a very aggressive attempt to combine the arts and the sciences in sort of equivalent forms of curiosity. How has that experience been?

[00:49:58] LEVIN: So now I’m director of sciences at Pioneer Works and so far it’s me, director of me, but, we have events called scientific controversies, which, I invite two guests on stage and we confront unsolved problems. And so far it’s only been physics because I’m reaching for stuff that, you know, I feel comfortable with, but our first event we had Frank Wilczek, who’s a Nobel prize winning physicist and really one of the great minds alive today. Just an absolute creative genius as a physicist. And I’m Max Tegmark also a great physicist from MIT. And we thought, you know, 10 people are going to show up to this. We were talking about many worlds and whether or not there existed a multiverse and whether or not the quantum theory idea that each time there is a quantum event or decision is made that worlds branch off in which both things have happened. So, you know, there is a plethora of John Hockenberrys that have made slightly different choices or different coin tosses along the way. And there’s interesting things about that whole theory. So I thought, who’s going to show up to this? You know, we thought there’d be 10 people. We had 400.

HOCKENBERRY: You’re really talking about different John Hockenberrys. My wife would have showed up.

LEVIN: Yeah. All your wives would show up and compare notes. Right? So yeah, we had 450 people in this art space and there’s a big exhibit up at the same time. And yeah, it was really quite a scene straight out of the gate and that was, I was just visiting Pioneer Works just to do this one and we just kind of realized what we should keep doing this. And I love being there so much surrounded by artists and musicians. And now we have some writers who are residents that it’s where I spend my summers or my sabbatical time. Um, and, and I bring physicists in to talk to me about physics sometimes, but we’re doing it in this completely strange environment, but something about it really works. So last night Africa’s Out! had their gala there. An LGBT African sort of community organization. The most amazing people where there sound checking, you know, Erykah Badu and Santigold. Am I saying that right? Who knows, whose hip enough here to know? It’s a test. And, you know, and it’s banging loud and this sound checks going on in the huge main hall and we’re like trying to calculate you know, at the chalkboard, but something about it works. It was very inspiring, you know, we’d, none of us left and said, we can’t deal with this noise. Yeah, I think there’s something about the falseness of the divisions that we are people who are scientists or we are people who are musicians or people who are writers. That’s just a false thing. And, I think we’re born doing all those things and that we unlearn something or we were forced out of our genuine natural curiosity for the world were forced to choose some specific identity and path. And it’s a much more natural environment.

HOCKENBERRY: A lot of science writers described themselves as, well I wish I was a scientist. But I’m not, I’m a science writer, that sort of thing, and this is something that you might have heard maybe 20 years ago in science writers and science writing. Now I do think that there’s a much more aggressive sense of we envision a community of people speaking amongst themselves about science and their curiosity and what science and my own conception of science or means to other aspects of life, ethics, morality. How do I raise my children? What’s going on in my brain? Why do I feel this way? Why is the world this way? Why can’t we make better choices socially? Can you talk amongst yourselves and envision this idea of community that comes really from, I think your work that involves a very sophisticated, not a teaching NOVA idea of science, but the idea that everyone is kind of at the same level talking about science and various issues that matter to them as a way of invigorating our public discourse. Do you see a community like that? Have you ever experienced it? Do you think that it’s…

LEVIN: Well, I mean, I guess I could just say that I feel more and more convinced that science is a natural part of culture and yet we haven’t fully accepted that yet. It says though we haven’t culturally realized that that’s true quite yet. So we still think of science as falling under education and you know, when I write books, my colleagues will say you’re doing outreach, you know. It’s really strange. Like the, there’s, there’s a sense that science is still other and I think that that places like Pioneer Works are showing that it’s not other, it’s no stranger for scientists to want to be in the world and share the remarkable discoveries that they’ve made than it is for an artist to want to present their work in a gallery. You don’t ask an artist like, why do you want to put your work in a gallery? Why aren’t you alone in your studio environment? And we are often quite isolated as scientist and some scientists don’t ever want to come out of the lab. And that’s perfectly fine. I don’t think it’s something that should be required of every scientist at all. It’s perfectly fine for someone to be totally single mindedly in the lab 20 hours a day but many people reach some moment in their lives where they want to share what they just saw, you know, it’s like the people who climbed to the top of Mount Everest and not everyone’s going to make that climb and they can come back and tell the rest of us with the view is like. And that’s just a natural thing that human beings want to do.

[00:55:38] HOCKENBERRY: Do you feel that the rest of you feel in your work with bigger, you know, you’re not part of the outreach, that you’re engaged in something that is much more sort of natural?

ACKERMAN: Yeah, I would say that not being a scientist myself, but the scientists that I work with that I interview, they are so thrilled and delighted to have their stories told to have their research brought to the, to the public. I think so much of science is just siloed. Everybody has been driven towards specialties and the languages are so different that there’s just this wonderful on kind of excitement and gratitude about having their story told in language that everybody can understand. And

ACKERMAN: so I think that-and it makes them feel, I think part of a bigger community.

HOCKENBERRY: Are you an enabler of that community?

ROACH: I feel like I was duped early on in high school into believing that there were creative things to study and pursue and then there was science and that wasn’t creative. And I guess over the years of, I mean I’m not, I don’t have a background in science, but one of the most striking things about the science and the people that practices it is the amazing creativity that is not only evident but necessary. It’s an amazingly creative. I mean, I just remember, you know, engineering was to me just sort of when I was younger, just it just seemed like that’s what really geeky, boring people did. And then I spent, you know, couple of years around people at NASA who keeps just like, just like the guy who designed- the people who had to figure out, all right, without gravity, how do we make a toilet work?

ROACH: It’s not going to-the whole flushing thing has to be rethought. How do you do that? And how do you test it? You have to figure out some way to simulate that environment. And anyway, you don’t need to go down that road. But I’m just-not only is it creative, it’s also just when people would- when young people in particular say science is- no I don’t like to read science. Sciences is boring. But science is your, it’s your life. You know, it’s your body and your computer and your dog and the tree and that’s science. How could it possibly be dull? So how does, why did I start out there? Why do we start out that way?

LEVIN: I have to say I’m obsessed with this because when I was a kid, I thought physicists were the most uncreative people you could possibly-like all they did was memorize things and memorize equations and I don’t know where I thought they got these equations from-tablets of some kind. And that they build bombs and that was it. So when I was in college, I thought I was going to be a philosophy major. I was interested in art and somebody just because of the college requirements of all the math and the science, somebody said have you ever considered doing physics? And I was like, I was so insulted and I am obsessed with this idea now that there’s this thing called constrained creativity. And that is what everybody who has creative does, not just scientists. Science is an incredibly interesting version of a constrained creativity and all the great artists that I know have imposed intense constraints under work. They, you know, like a great example is what’s his name? The light guy. James Turrell. He only works with the light as his medium. I mean, what an insanely intense constraint to put on himself. So much so that he tries to remove the room. He removes a point of focus, he removes an object, an image, all he wants is the light and his work is unbelievably transcendent because of the severity of his constraint. And I think that this is something that my friend Pedro Ferreira, who’s in an event right now, I think somewhere in the World Science Festival, is the one who used that phrase for the first time, constrained creativity. When we were post docs at Berkeley. He’s a n astrophysicist and I was just like the word, just having words to lay on it was, it was like a revelation.

[01:00:02] ROACH: There’s something paralyzing about a lack of constraints. Somebody says to you can write a book about anything. I’d rather someone say, your next book has to be about that building across the street or that crate of peaches, I don’t care. And that to me would be this amazing creative challenge.

LEVIN: Terry Gross gave you the…

ROACH: Exactly. Give me some constraint, please. But I think it fosters creativity.

LEVIN: Absolutely.

HOCKENBERRY: You know, we think of the New York raised community of these folks who relish what’s going on in the world, amazing, fabulous. You should see that, and this restaurant, and that play. And runs the New Yorker has transformed itself through the years and it has a bit of that still as you can tell from the laughter, but there seems to be a really robust sense of either, hey, we got to get involved in this science business over at the New Yorker. I mean, Gopnik did that piece just two weeks ago on touch, the science of touch. I discovered from Adam Gopnik, Mr. sentimental, “oh Paris, Paris.” I mean that’s Gopnik. He’s telling me that the itch is a distinct condition of the nervous system, that the itch is not part of a hurt. It was such a revelation. I went around for a week going the itch is not a hurt trying to be born. It’s something all by itself, it’s not, it’s not a tickle. Anyway. Sorry. Those moments the New Yorker gives you. But is that what’s going on at the New Yorker? Is there a bunch more of a sense of talking about science?

KONNIKOVA: Well, I think that there’s more of a sense that things, other than politics are important because the New Yorker has traditionally realized that politics is an important thing to talk about. Let’s do that. In the New Yorker doesn’t ever do cover stories, but if you look at its covers, you’ll see a lot of political figures. And you’ll see a lot of caricature of political figures. You don’t ever really see Marie Curie, for instance, on the cover of a New Yorker magazine. But I think that over the last few years they’ve really-and I think I actually think that this is, comes from a lack of constraints because now the web is opening up and the New Yorker has done this huge push for a web presence that is actually real and kind of reflects the magazine. And I think that was the entry point for science to really begin to flourish at the magazine, because you could suddenly assigned pieces and experiment with them and you weren’t constrained by, you know, we only can do three stories. And so I don’t want to risk having one be about science and have, you know, no one read it. And the web was incredibly successful and people, those were the most read stories, were the science stories. And so I think that that gave, that gave the editors courage to say, you know what, this actually matters. People are interested in it. This is what people are curious about because it’s about us. It’s about our bodies. It’s about our minds. It’s about, about birds too and you know, it’s about questions that are really fundamentally important, just as fundamentally important as politics.

HOCKENBERRY: But it’s also the case that politics and I discover this every day on the program, is that politics is so behind the curve in terms of science and a connectivity and sort of the sophistication of evolution of media that the law has no idea what to do with open source or has no idea what to do with privacy because it’s not kept up with the technology that is associated with the web. And I think most of the major discussions in politics now, relate to this disparity of science-of politics having to catch up with the understanding of science that is inherent in, you know, I mean, Snowden succeeded because he was so far ahead of the contractors and the policy makers in terms of his ability to disclose information because he knew the channels. The political figures didn’t. I mean, I remember the first Snowden hearing where the senators were trying to discuss what actually happens on the web and in terms of privacy and NSA surveillance. And they knew absolutely nothing. They knew absolutely nothing about the search algorithms. I talked to actually with some staffers on the hill who had to teach metadata to Jeff Sessions. And you know, these are hard things to do. And, and the fact that they’re not up to speed on it is no, you know, it’s, it’s not an indication that, that politics is irrelevant. It’s an indication that politics needs to get relevant. And unless it has this scientific qualities, it’s not going to.

[01:05:10] KONNIKOVA: Absolutely. And it’s not just about technology. I mean, I think some of the most pressing problems are in the legal system, you know, how do we determine guilt, you know, can we use neuroscience as evidence in the court? Um, what, you know is what we’re learning about, you know, how a psychopath’s brain works. Does that mean that people aren’t responsible anymore? You know, what about DNA testing? We thought that we had this very sophisticated technology and all of a sudden we realize it wasn’t as sophisticated and DNA is fallible at least in the way that it was being used. And so you start, you start seeing, I think in all of these areas, the two are really converging. And if you, if you keep having these divisions between, you know, physics and creativity between politics and physics. If you, if you have these barriers, you can’t, you can’t learn what one field knows. And sometimes you find that the best discoveries actually happen when all of a sudden you say, oh, we didn’t know you guys had this problem. Here we’ve solved it in a long time ago. Here are the tools to do it. And I’m actually really inspired by people like Janna because I was unable to do what she does. I left academia because I found that it was actually incredibly hostile to people who spent as much time as I did communicating their ideas to the public and they don’t like that because they feel like that is a waste of time. And so I think you find that small minded attitude everywhere. And so it’s incredibly refreshing when it suddenly goes away in one field.

HOCKENBERRY: Jennifer, your books. Oh, hold on one second. Jennifer, do you think your books teach people to love the world, the nature of the way in which we see the world?

ACKERMAN: Well, I hope so. I mean, that’s certainly my goal in to have people see the natural world in ways that they might not have before. So one reader told me after reading the genius of birds said it was like I had given him another pair of binoculars, a magical pair of binoculars. He was just, he saw them differently. He saw the birds differently. Um, and uh, and that is absolutely my goal. And you know, I do write about conservation but I’ve always felt like it was better to come at conservation through the back door, not hit people over the head with what we’re losing, but I make them love what is around us and then, you know, slip in some as I do in the last chapter of the book, some of the harder stuff about what we need to be worried about. That’s precious that we’re losing.

HOCKENBERRY: The Rachel Carson stuff. You’ve got to go down there.

ACKERMAN: Right well, it’s the state of the planet is…

HOCKENBERRY: Janna, I interrupted you.

LEVIN: No, no, not at all. I was just going to say that there are still hostility in academia towards doing anything but exactly the subject that you were supposed to be teaching, but I think certain places are special. You know, Barnard’s a very special place. They really think broadly about scholarship. I don’t know. I don’t think that that’s typical. I think there’s a lot of people who were communicators who lost their jobs actually.

HOCKENBERRY: Yeah. We’re going to get questions from you. Oh you don’t have any questions? We have microphones on either side. You can start thinking of your questions and queue up and we’ll get to questions in a moment. Before we go to questions, great books besides your own that you read in the last year that- or just in your life that typify the kinds of things that we’ve been talking about. And they don’t have to be science books, fiction, non-fiction, whatever. Mary?

ROACH: I just finished Dead Wake by Erik Larson, which was wonderful. My father came to this country on the Lusitania couple years before, obviously before it went down.

HOCKENBERRY: Some science would say, you know, could have been later.

HOCKENBERRY: Anyway, just a wonderful book. Again, he’s so good at weaving the two stories, you know, the U-boat and the Lusitania and the captain of each and yeah, just sort of…

LEVIN: I’ve sort of had readers block lately, which is like a really new problem. While I was writing, I couldn’t read anything else. It was really frustrating. And the book was published so quickly that I was still writing the epilogue in like January, February. But I did look over recently a syllabus that I have put together for science in fiction and- not science fiction per se, and I love fiction. I actually read much more fiction than I do non-fiction and there’s so many great books. There was White Noise by Don DeLillo. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Yes, I know exactly. I’ve read that book three times. I laugh every time. I laugh- not The Road, sorry. We’re still talking about Don DeLillo.

[01:10:12] HOCKENBERRY: Yeah, The Road’s a real chuckle.

LEVIN: Martin Amis has a great book called Time’s Arrow which runs backwards.

HOCKENBERRY: Yeah, it’s great.

LEVIN: He’s a total genius.

HOCKENBERRY: Yeah such a fantastic book. Time’s Arrow. How many have read Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis? That’s a good one. I see some hands. You know, DeLillo’s got a new one out. It’s about cryogenic immortality.

LEVIN: Oh excellent.

HOCKENBERRY: It’s called Zero K, which is a term before…

LEVIN: Have you read it?

HOCKENBERRY: I have read it. Yeah, it’s- I actually interviewed DeLillo last week. I’ve never met him before. Have you ever seen him? I know, no one’s seen him. He actually appeared. I mean, he’s just this. He’s just- if you were in a room with Don DeLillo, you would never notice him. He’s just this guy who seems like he would hand out, I don’t know, programs at Yankee Stadium. It would be Ebbets Field though in his case and he makes a great point about that. He’s just such a fantastic observer and that’s really what comes across. He’s just been sitting there watching and he’s not afraid of any subjects. And you know, his training is, is, uh, you know, it’s nothing. I mean, it’s not, it’s not anything that would lead him any particular direction. How about you?

KONNIKOVA: Well Janna kind of stole my thunder? I do say I read more fiction than nonfiction.

HOCKENBERRY: Yeah, you’re a fiction maniac.

KONNIKOVA: And a book that I reread every few years and that I just finished rereading and that every single time inspires me in different ways. Is Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

HOCKENBERRY: Is there a new translation?

KONNIKOVA: It does, it does.

HOCKENBERRY: Although you don’t need translation right?  

KONNIKOVA: But it has a great introduction by Boris Fishman. So you guys should, you guys should read the new translation. And it’s, you know, talk about something that blurs boundaries. I mean, it is literature, it’s psychology, it asks questions about the nature of existence and what happened, you know, it’s politics, it’s science fiction. I mean, you know, the devil comes to Moscow. And, or actually maybe that’s not science fiction, maybe it’s realism.

HOCKENBERRY: You’d have to ask Putin.

KONNIKOVA: Or Boland as he’s now called. So it’s a book that always opens up new venues for me and I also I read poetry and I read poetry every day. So I try to read a little bit of poetry before I go to sleep.

HOCKENBERRY: What poem did you read today?

KONNIKOVA: So I read Anand. I always have Anand on my nightstand. I’m actually in the middle of a move right now. And so all of my books are packed in huge boxes. I gave away 40 boxes of books guys. It was, it was terrible, but housing works loves me. And this is one of the books I did not pack because I need poetry with me at all times and I think it’s a wonderful habit for people to have.

ACKERMAN: I read a lot of poetry too. A.R. Ammons is on my nightstand, I love his books, but the book that came to mind was one I finished recently, which is The Invention of Nature.

HOCKENBERRY: That’s such an amazing book.

ACKERMAN: It is the most incredible book. It’s the biography of Alexander von Humboldt, but it goes well beyond that. And it is- Andrea Wulf is just a master storyteller.

HOCKENBERRY: Do you know this book? Does anyone know this book? The Invention of Nature? Oh it’s so fantastic.

ACKERMAN: It’s stunningly, beautifully done. And Alexander von Humboldt was a scientist in every stripe. He knew astronomy. He knew botany. He knew oceanography. He knew just every kind of science.

HOCKENBERRY: In a way, it’s not wrong to say he was the Muhammad Ali of the 1880’s.

ACKERMAN: He was a star.

HOCKENBERRY: Right. When he died, the entire world knew about it. He’s forgotten today. Although you can go to Humboldt County and buy really great, awesome cannabis. But the reason it’s Humboldt County in California is because of him.

ACKERMAN: That’s right and there are places all over the world that are named for him. But it’s just a great story. And then she takes it. What I love about it is that she takes it beyond his death to the influences that he had on Thoreau and Frederic Church, Darwin. So you get this sense of this man living on, in the scientists and artists of the generations that follow.

HOCKENBERRY: And in how we understand nature, how we think of nature, which was very different in the 1800’s and he transformed the entire planet’s sense.

ACKERMAN: He really was the first to think about system of nature and that things were connected so that if there were, zones on a mountain that had certain kinds of plants growing there, that would be true in other parts of the world. There were, he was connecting everything in a way that just nobody had ever done before.

[01:15:01] HOCKENBERRY: Well great suggestions. Those books will not be for sale outside the books of these fabulous authors. First of all, give it up for this panel. Raise the house lights a little bit if you could so I can see the- all right, right there. You’re first.

AUDIENCE: Hi, my name’s Jayde Lovell. I’m the host of SciQ, the science show on Youtube. First of all, thank you so much for such an enjoyable panel. It’s truly marvelous to see so many people interested and inspired by what you had to say about science. At the moment in the science field that, as you mentioned, there’s a huge push towards outreach from scientists and we spend a lot of time and effort training scientists to be able to communicate better. How can we move away from communicating science and outreaching inflammation and move towards instilling a love of science in people first? You mentioned that that’s really important, but how do we actually convince scientists to do that first?

LEVIN: Um, I’m not sure it is the job of the scientist to do that and I think that that’s important to let scientists be scientists, you know, they’re the ones that need to do that work and they’re the only ones who can do that work. I mean, I think what Mary and Jennifer, whatever everyone here is doing, is instilling the love of science in their audiences. And these are hugely successful, well known books with a great long life. So I think it’s happening and it’s happening through other people who are picking up their own curiosity in the subject and by making it part of culture, you’re the only one who writes like you and you’re the only one who writes like you, you know, and your style is so different and I think that that makes it naturally part of culture and it makes it that there’s so many different voices that everyone can find the thing that works for them in terms of exciting them or turning them on and people want it. I mean, you know, they really do. This thing at Pioneer Works was evidence of that. People just wanted it to be brought to them in their natural environment. They didn’t want to have to go to Lincoln Center and that was not where they wanted to see, you know, anything, but they were just thrilled. It was brought into their home effectively, you know, their community.

HOCKENBERRY: Pioneer Works is an artist studio venue, a difficult to categorize, but a great place to go and see all kinds of things in Red Hook Brooklyn. Just around the corner, it turns out from the Tesla flagship, a bit of science in Red Hook Brooklyn. But anyway, I would encourage you to go see what’s going on at Pioneer Works if you don’t know what Pioneer Works is. Right here, question.

AUDIENCE: Hi. I’m obviously I very much echo the thanks over there for all you being here. Uh, my name is Eli Can. I’m a first year medical student at NYU. My question I pose to Miss Konnikova, which is, how did you con the New York Times and the world into thinking that confidence games were interesting and I pose out to the rest of you and Miss Roach we’re learning about reproductive physiology right now. And I have to say that 4,000 slides I’m going to go memorize over the next 72 hours aren’t half as interesting as Bonk. So, how do you, how do you think about doing that?

KONNIKOVA: Well, I think that, the first step is curiosity. I mean, the reason why we’re all here, you have to find a topic that you, yourself are genuinely curious about. I mean, that was the origin of the book. I had a burning question. How does this happen? And when you have curiosity guiding you, I think that animates you to find the answer and to pose the question, to tell the story in a way that will probably reflect the curiosity of others. So what I’ve found, and I used to do, you know, multiple columns a week for the New Yorker Online. I had to scale back a little bit, but I had to pick topics all the time and people would say, oh, you know, who wants to read about yawning? And then a lot of people want to read about yawning because, you know, it’s just sitting there and all of a sudden someone yawns. By the way, you guys are all going to start yawning now.

HOCKENBERRY: On the empathetic ones.

KONNIKOVA: Only the empathetic ones, only the empathetic ones. I want to yawn now. But it’s one of those things where it comes from a place of genuine interest. You can’t think about what’s The New York Times going to like or what are other people going to like. You have to think about what inspires my passion and then you end up telling it in a way that makes other people curious about it and that’s been the origin of basically every single story and certainly every book that I’ve written and maybe you guys have a different process for figuring out what you’re going to be writing about, but to me that’s the number one most important thing and that carries it. And if it’s absent, it doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are. There is not going to be kind of a soul, I think in what you write.

[01:20:18] HOCKENBERRY: High praise for a med student over there, by the way.

ROACH: Yeah, I see the problem is you’ve got to-you’re memorizing all the slides. You can’t stop and like-Bonk happened because I was reading Film Quarterly. I was reading. I don’t know why-I never read Film Quarterly. I don’t know, but I was somehow I was reading Film Quarterly and there was a reference to the colposcopic films of Masters and Johnson and I went, wait, colposcopy. Wait that’s like cervical woo filmed inside camera. Wow. And then sex research. Wow. These guys, this was happening in the fifties. How do we study female sexual response?

HOCKENBERRY: They were doing GoPro things.

ROACH: Yeah the GoPros, exactly. And that was-that was the research, the sex research, the study of sexual physiology that must have been quite a trip. And that was just that moment where-but I think when you’re having a, you’re just having to absorb so much information. I mean I think I kind of step back and just let that cabinet door pop open where you go. Whoa. What’s in there? Let’s go in there.

HOCKENBERRY: But pay attention and study really hard.

ROACH: Yeah, I’m not saying…

HOCKENBERRY: We don’t want anything to mess up later on.

AUDIENCE: I don’t think I’m going into OBGYN.

HOCKENBERRY: Right over here.

AUDIENCE: Hello, my name is Macy Lau. I actually work for in creating content for children and the question is a little bit of a two-part. There was an article in the Times a couple of weeks ago about veterans working with parrots in terms of their rehab ability and a lot of my friends came back to me when I posted it on Facebook saying like, “oh, I didn’t know that they were, that smart. This is really interesting.” And then I began thinking, because at work we’re being tasked with making more content for children in STEM and I’m running into this conflict of this idea of like presenting the content purely as what it is, whether or not quote unquote it’s austere or seemingly unreachable or if I have to make something like it’s about robots or things like this. And I wanted to know what your guys experiences is about presenting topics that might seemingly be inaccessible or completely niche and presenting quote unquote the purity of what that subject is versus the need to say like, “Oh, here’s the humanity and here’s how relevant it is to you while you make your sandwich every day.” And things like that because that’s kind of as someone has to make content that’s accessible. Particularly for younger kids, that’s something that we come up with everyday where, you know, we have to have a character talk about or why can’t we just

ROACH: talk about the subject.

ACKERMAN: Yeah. That’s a conundrum. I mean, I think, I think honestly that children will be open to a story well told whether it’s focused on a particular aspect or I don’t think you need to couch it in something that is, I don’t think you need to talk down to kids. I guess is what I’m saying. And I, and I think one of the things that has happened in science writing in general, is that it’s getting more and more not dumbed down. And I think that that’s really a very wonderful development that, you know, it doesn’t have to be, you know, couched in anything you can just be presented as it is, you know. And the example that you give of the veterans with the parrots, is you know, that was a very moving story. And there’s, I think any piece of that story would be wonderful and interesting for kids. And you know when I was working on the book, I actually had an experience with a young autistic boy who had been given a parrot and developed this amazing relationship in this bird, brought him out of his shell. So, so, you know, little vignette of, um, you know, some pieces of that story I think would be, would be wonderful for kids.

HOCKENBERRY: I love your question because I think and having, I’m not a scientist, but I’m a parent. I have five kids and I do think that kids are hip to these subliminal messages that come from the ways in which adults select metaphors or characters to tell certain stories. I mean, for instance, my daughter Zoey at age nine, after watching, no matter how we tried to prevent it, a certain number of McDonald’s commercials that describe the happy meal or interacting with their friends about happy meals where there’s like food and you get a toy and isn’t that great? Isn’t that really cool? And my daughter came up to me and say, boy, the food must. There must be something really wrong with the food if they have to give you a toy to eat it. And I went, whoa, she’s getting this backstory message. And the other thing that my kids, you know, they watch all of these, um, sometimes PBS stories about how, you know, it’s OK to be different than the stories like La, la, la. I was different and everything was sad. And then someone told me it’s OK to be different and then I went to my friends. I’m different. Oh, it’s great that you’re a different, oh, I’m not sad anymore. La La, you know, every story this way. And people have like, you know, weird colors on their faces or stripes and weird. It’s always the same that it’s OK to be different. And my kids, you know, reading so many of these in school and otherwise. I remember my oldest son came with me and said, you know, there must be something really wrong with being different because they’re telling us that it’s OK. They keep going back to this subject. It must be pretty bad to be different, so it’s like almost the wrong message that you’re getting, so I’m wondering if the pure subject would free you from this tension that kids wouldn’t be looking for a backstory if they’re just getting the basic science. Do you find that in the content that you prepare?

[01:26:24] AUDIENCE: One of the shows that has yet to premiere features like a boy and a girl and they build things to solve problems and so right now we’re being tasked to create a game because it’s a preschool show that is an extension of the thing and I’m pushing for something that’s very STEM and not with a goal in mind. Not like they have to build a thing and then they get a reward and then they did this as a team.

HOCKENBERRY: They become pirates.

AUDIENCE: I was trying to like articulate it where it’s just like a sandbox kind of game and then I got the feedback of so what are they supposed to do now if we don’t tell them what they’re supposed to do? And it’s an interesting thing because it is something that’s a field that’s growing in this particular section of content making and it’s something that I’m curious as to how it’s explored.

HOCKENBERRY: Well, great stuff. You had a comment?

KONNIKOVA: Well, I was just going to. I was going to respond to that. Say, you know it’s very funny because I think we sometimes think that children are dumber than birds because we don’t tell- we don’t give the Caledonian crows, you know what you’re supposed to do, like this is your goal. You just kind of present the parts and they figure it out. Kids figure things out. You don’t have to just leave them and they. And they will. They’re smarter than crows. Or maybe these crows are really smart. There’s some kids are smarter than some crows. How about that.

AUDIENCE: Hello everybody. My name is Sellina. I have sort of a related question and perhaps we can hear from one of the other two panelists on the, on the topic. Thinking more broadly, it seems to me like one of the challenges in writing and science based stories is that balancing act of accessibility with accuracy and, and really sort of allowing for the nuance of the science to remain there and not like over simplify it to the point where important distinctions are obliterated. So as authors, first of all, like, do you feel the responsibility to, to tow that line and what personal kind of guiding principles have you developed to navigate situations where, you know, the science and the, and the, and the story well-told won’t naturally come together and you have to kind of wrestle them.

LEVIN: I mean, I, so, I’ll just try to be very brief. So the book that I just finished about the gravitational waves, which are ripples in the shape of space-time, about one of the most obscure things you could possibly write about. It’s very, very difficult to explain, at least when they found the Higgs particle, the large Hadron Collider, people knew a particle had been found like they could, you know, but after the gravitational wave discovery, people were-everyone stopped, they were so excited, and then I swear, within 24 hours people were like, I don’t get it, you know? And so I really up-the book was at one point twice as big as it is now because it had, it had an entire book’s worth of science in it. And I just realized that was not actually the book I was writing. The book that I was writing was a narrative about the campaign, the arduousness of the campaign, why it was so important to these people who are all over the festival right now. Ray Weiss and Kip Thorne and you know, just the Kavli prize yesterday. And I realized the science is crucial to understanding why you should care, but it wasn’t crucial, I realized, to explain to you how to think about the equivalence principal or something like this. And so all that stuff went 50,000 words, you know, and what was interesting was how easily it’s slotted out, which was confirmation that it was wrong for it to be in, in the first place. And what remained was much more naturally woven together was inseparable. You didn’t see the scenes where the fibers are. Or so I hope. And so that’s, you know, I think you find it as you go along. I don’t know what you’re feeling…

[01:30:21]ROACH: Well not having a background in science. I’m coming at the topics right along with most of my readers. So it’s very easy for me to have a sense of what’s going to be, what’s going to lose them. When I’m lost, they’re going to be lost. So it’s a completely different kind of book, a different reader. Not necessarily, but that’s. So it’s my ignorance is an advantage and a disadvantage. It would be so much easier to do what I do if I had a background in physiology or biology and I don’t. So I’m always walking on thin ice and I’m always afraid I’m going to just have a “what an idiot” moment in the book, but it does make it easier to not leave people behind. So anyway.

HOCKENBERRY: But is it the case that for all of you whether or not you include the pure science in the narrative of whatever story that you’re doing that particularly in your case where the stories are often about how you found this out. You went to this lab and talked to this interesting person who had this strange job and did all these things that you’re suddenly telling readers they can find out more. That you know, I mean, it’s silly and if you want to find out more, go to our website or something like that. But in fact, you’re empowering people to take their curiosity to the next level by continuing the journey right? Do you have evidence that that’s the case that…

LEVIN: I tell a lot of graduate students now who, you know, getting PhDs in theoretical physics to read popular science books because you do not get a big picture as a student. You’re studying, the vector potential of the electromagnetic field in a particular configuration, you know, for two weeks. And they don’t know why they’re doing it for years, for years. They, they don’t know why they’re doing it. So, or where, how it all fits together. So I think these sort of popular science books are giving students this whole sense of what the subject is about and, and then they’re, like you said, following their curiosity to deeper understanding. And I think it’s been really good.

ROACH: Well you’re a great audience, we have time for one more question. Obviously, we could go on longer, but we’re going to be kicked out of here. And thank you all for coming. Last question right here.

AUDIENCE: A lot of pressure. My question was specifically for Mary, but I think it applies to all. I’m just most familiar with your writing. I was curious a bit about your process because in your stories, and I think probably in all science journalism, there’s just so much more research that has to happen. So much more interviewing to get to that basic fact. And um, I guess about your editing process, do you have like crazy notebooks and when you get down to writing or do you hear a quote and you’re like, that’s, you know, that’s the end of this chapter or like how do you kind of carry out…

ROACH: You know, I write everything down and I know I’m going to use 0.01 percent of it. I just, that’s just because when I go somewhere and I report a chapter, I’m often not entirely sure what that chapter is going to be about. So I way over report and then they go and then when I come home I do have a sense of OK, now I have a sense of this now. And then I go through and I pull out the relevant bits and pieces and then I transcribe that and then I go through and circle the good bits and I moved the good bit. Like here’s the really good, this has got to be in there. And so that my two part process is a qualified, like a random thrashing.

ACKERMAN: Oh I do the same thing, yeah, absolutely, and the point about being sort of in when you’re taking notes, you really, you’re really not processing what, how this is going to look as a story.

LEVIN: It’s just like a fire hydrant.

HOCKENBERRY: The wider the net the better?

ACKERMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

HOCKENBERRY: Don’t go in with the preconceived notion.

ROACH: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t even know the right questions. I don’t have you know, for me, I have things I need to kind of learn about, but I don’t really have specific questions because until I get there I don’t know what the questions are and those people are going to lead me to them and I’m going to think, holy crap, this, I didn’t even know this whole world existed. My notion of what this person did or what this realm of science is, is so marvel at that point. So I have to just let them lead me. And so I’m very kind of wiggly…

[01:35:06] HOCKENBERRY: Were you one of those aspiring science journalists who piped in earlier in the audience?

AUDIENCE: Well I work at the Wall Street Journal.

HOCKENBERRY: So you’re not an aspiring journalist.

AUDIENCE: Well I’m a news app developer. So I do less writing so I’m always curious about the editing process.

HOCKENBERRY: Alright. Well thank you and thanks to the panel. And thanks to all of you. 

Big Ideas
Big Data: Power, Potential, and Perils

We live in the era Big Data. Its algorithms pervade our lives--shaping our purchases, our finances, our health care, our education, our communities, our public policy. Armed with phones, computers, and countless other devices, society has produced more data in the past two years—a zettabyte—than the prior span of human civilization. Yet the promise of Big Data lies not only in quantity, but in the quality of our analyses and the foresight of our applications. Is Big Data the future of scientific inquiry? Are we giving too much power to algorithms, seeking large-scale patterns, with the risk of losing the core of our humanity? Join us to explore the potential and perils of Big Data. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

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