A NY Times Columnist gives readers a look into the lives of scientists

Claudia Dreifus has interviewed great minds in the fields of astronomy, biology, computer science and more. Her interviews with scientists make up the New York Times column “A conversation with..”

TRANSCRIPT

My next guest is making science more accessible by giving readers a closer look into the lives of scientists.

Claudia Dreifus has interviewed great minds in the field of astronomy, biology, computer science, and more.

Her interviews with scientists make up column 'A Conversation With.'

Claudia Dreifus joins me now.

So, you're getting into people who are incredibly bright in one thing, but you're able to figure out, in your columns, some way to humanize them, that they're not just this little person in a lab coat that sits somewhere in this corner building.

Well, thank you. Yes.

What I try to do is use biography as a vehicle for talking about science and to show the real people behind these incredible discoveries that have changed our lives, and often, they're fantastic and dramatic stories.

And you've talked to Nobel Prize winners.

You've talked to giants like Stephen Hawking.

What is it that you look for to start bringing that story out of them?

Well, I think the thing that moves any of us.

What moves you?

Why do you do what you do?

And sometimes, people aren't really all that in touch with it, but sometimes, there's a really clear line.

One of my favorite interviews is with James Allison, a biochemist, a researcher who really changed all of the way we're treating cancer now.

He's got a lot of cancer in his family.

And so, it struck him that a very, very old, forgotten way of treating cancer, mobilizing the immune system, might work, and he really worked at it, and he did it.

I mean, how many people can go around and say, 'I cured cancer'? He did.

He also played with Willie Nelson, and I asked him, 'Which was more meaningful to you?'

What was his answer?

He said very graciously, 'Solving many of the cancers is very rewarding, and so was playing with Willie Nelson.'

There is a trend now, in science, to become better communicators of the work that they're doing.

That, really, sometimes, the scientists are -- I don't know if they're going to a course about it, perhaps most of them are not, but that it's become important to say, 'Here's the work that I'm doing.'

I think the younger scientists really want to do that, and the Internet has facilitated it because they no longer have to have mediators between them and the public.

And they have no problem blogging or writing op-eds, and my course at Columbia is just for scientists, not for journalists.

I teach them the techniques of science so that they can learn how to communicate clearly because they have to unlearn a lot of the stuff they were trained to do.

Has the audience increased its appetite for science?

I mean, have you found that more readers are not just reading but responding and engaging with your work?

Well, I don't know.

I think there's always been an audience there, and, you know, there was a time when popular culture in America included science.

The 1930s, if you look at all these popular Warner Bros. movies, mostly starring Paul Muni, 'The Story of Louis Pasteur,' the story of Marie Curie, those popular entertainments were about science, and Albert Einstein was as famous as Elvis.

That kind of receded, and I think, in some ways, we're going to back to that.

In a way, I'm trying to model those Warner Bros. movies.

Tell the story and you'll get the science.

These are people.

These are people with the same motives everybody else has, but they're doing incredible things.

I'll tell you another thing.

They're a lot like artists, the really great ones.

I mean, they have to step out onto a limb where nothing is known, and they have to find, from nature, a secret.

That's interesting.

Mm.

What are the scientific discoveries, you think, that people are most excited by today?

Well, it depends on who.

Economists are most excited by -- or people in business -- by algorithms and the Internet and automation, but I think we all ought to be excited by Jim Allison's discovery of immunotherapy, which is the first change in the way we treated cancer in 100 years.

I think we all should be excited by everyday things that we've taken for granted.

When I was a kid, polio was the absolute worst scourge of the world, and then one day, a scientist ended it.

And the same thing in the '80s.

I had so many friends dying of AIDS, and now, we can make that a chronic disease.

So science is every day in our life, but we don't recognize it, and we don't even understand that it's there, but we use it every time we pick up a cellphone.

I know it's like picking among your children, but are there interviews that stand out for you to say...

Oh, sure.

...'Wow. This conversation changed how I thought'?

Well, like a good mother, I love all my children, and people sometimes say, 'What's your favorite interview?'

And I don't have one, but I'll never forget interviewing Stephen Hawking, simply because the courage with which he insists on living his life is moving.

I never give my sources my questions beforehand, and I'm sure you don't either, Hari.

But in this case, I did because it takes him such a long time to process a question, and he has to figure out each letter in the alphabet in his brain and then program the computer to spell it, and it's not easy.

And so I did that, and then he requested, even though he could've e-mailed me the answer, he requested that he read and play the interview in person because he wanted to make it still a communication, even though it had that artificial aspect.

It was very frustrating to me because there was so much I wanted to ask him, and I couldn't, and it gave me, actually, a lot of sympathy for people who are disabled because there are all these pediments in the way that you don't recognize and that are there.

The one question that I asked spontaneously took a long time to get an answer to.

And it was something to the effect of, 'Why do you do this?

Why do you keep doing interviews like this?'

And he said because he hoped it would give others courage, and I think it does.

Claudia Dreifus, 'A Conversation With.'

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you!