Learning with Laughter: Late Night Talk Shows & Science

Written by: admin

Where do you get your daily dose of science? Online? Reading a magazine or newspaper? From a comedian?

If that last suggestion sounded a bit off, trust us, it’s not. David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert – these are the comedians who keep you laughing late into the night. And every so often, they are the comedians entertaining you with science.

Yes, that’s right, scientists and science-related segments have become part of the late night fare. Last week alone, Craig Ferguson (The Late Late Show) chatted with Dan Riskin, a bat researcher at the City College of New York and host of the Animal Planet Show Monsters Inside Me; Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) invited Sherry Turkle, a sociologist of science and technology, to speak about her latest book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other; and Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of PBS’s NOVA Science Now, stopped byThe Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Not too shabby.

If you want to catch scientists on late night television, there’s a blog tracking appearances each week. Or you could change the channel to Comedy Central – the channel boasts the two best bets to see a scientist: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Both shows regularly host scientists – especially The Colbert Report. This week, you can catch two scientists sitting across from Colbert, physicist and noted string theory explainer Brian Greene, as well as professor of psychology (emeritus) at Cornell University, Daryl Bem.

Scientists on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are fairly common – probably due to the shows’ emphasis on current affairs and politics. But what about the more entertainment-based late night talk shows? Science guests and science-related segments aren’t as frequent on other late night talk shows, but they do pop up from time to time. The Late Show with David Letterman features a recurring segment, Kid Scientists, with students from Naperville, Indiana. The kids demonstrate the latest scientific principles they’ve learned in some very amusing ways (glowing foam!). The Late Show is also the only talk show to have hosted presidential science adviser John Holdren – not once, but twice.

The Late Late Show is also in on the science game. Host Craig Ferguson’s fondness for Mythbusters is well-known – the show’s stars are frequent guests. Mythbuster Grant Imahara even built Ferguson’s robot skeleton sidekick Geoff Peterson.The Late Late Show’s guests in recent months include Mike Massimino, the first astronaut to tweet from space, andDerrick Pitts, chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute inPhiladelphia. As if that weren’t enough to prove Ferguson’s interest in science, he also devoted an opening monologue to Nobel Prize winners.

Scientists have also appeared on Conan (Hubble Fellow Evan Kirby joined O’Brien to promote the show; physicist and science writer Dr. Michio Kaku appeared as a guest), Jimmy Kimmel Live! (“Science Bob” Pflugfelder performed a science demonstration), and The Tonight Show (Leno hosted kid inventors).

Beyond science guests and science segments, let’s not forget there’s another way science is promoted on late night television: actors discussing their latest movies. In the past 18 months, the stars of science-based movies such as Creation, Extraordinary Measures, and Temple Grandin have done the talk show circuit. Audiences may get just a little taste of science from watching actors talk about their movies.

So what does it all mean? What do science guests and science segments mean in the larger scheme of things? Is science gaining mainstream popularity? Maybe. But it also says something to the audience – something some people know and some people are just finding out – science is entertaining.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.