The Christmas Lecture On

Wisconsin Public Radio

Science Fridays on
National Public Radio

Larry and Bassam

Professor Shakhashiri is a frequent guest of the Larry Meiller Show
on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio.

Back to Radio Main Page

November 8, 2010 Larry Meiller Show

Listen to this broadcast
  • Larry began by asking about a recent series of essays from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences concerning the relationship between the media and science. Professor Shakhashiri praised the effort to connect science and the media, noting that science and technology drive the economy. He added that it’s essential to establish good communications through the media, and Professor Shakhashiri asked members of the audience to call or e mail, telling how they get information about science. Professor Shakhashiri said most of what we know we learn outside school. School ideally teaches us how to learn, and prepares students for jobs, but most learning occurs outside of school. Professor Shakhashiri went on to praise Wisconsin Public Radio as the only reliable statewide source of information on science and technology, including the wide variety of scientists featured on the Larry Meiller Show, on “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (syndicated by WPR) , and Science Friday from National Public Radio. Larry said it’s a pleasure to talk with the experts who appear on his program.

  • A caller seconded Professor Shakhashiri’s praise of WPR, and asked if the total amount of water on Earth is known and whether the Earth loses water into space.Professor Shakhashiri said the total amount is known (he did not know the amount offhand, but you can find the answer here) and that water does not escape the Earth. It evaporates and rises into the atmosphere, but there it encounters colder temperatures, condenses and returns to Earth as precipitation. Water is the only substance that exists naturally on Earth in three phases, vapor, liquid and solid.  For further information, Professor Shakhashiri urged the caller to consult the essay on water under “Chemical of the Week” on this website, the US Geological Survey, the EPA and the UW Limnology Lab.

  • Another caller identified himself as a physician and asked Professor Shakhashiri’s opinion of social sciences, which, unlike natural sciences, can’t study phenomena by changing one variable at a time. The caller said economists can’t do that, and said analysis of the stock market seems to be more in the realm of psychology than economics. Professor Shakhashiri said that’s a good question, and added that the social sciences deal with human behavior, a very different domain from the natural sciences. He said the social sciences do a remarkable job of describing how we get along (or fail to get along), but agreed that it’s hard to control variables, so social scientists usually must rely on observation. Nevertheless, Professor Shakhashiri said natural scientists should support their colleagues in the social sciences. Professor Shakhashiri said he has a colleague who studies procrastination, specifically in relation to decisions to buy and sell in the stock market. Every few years Professor Shakhashiri sends him a message which begins, “I have been meaning to send you an e mail but…”

  • Larry said a colleague in his department, Life Sciences Communication, Professor Dietram Scheufele, helps scientists do a better job of communicating with the public. Professor Shakhashiri said social science research can be more complex and interesting than laboratory work. Prof. Scheufele was part of last year’s Conversations in Science Series, hosted by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy (WISL). You can read more about his talk here.

  • Another caller asked about the funding of scientific research, saying that some of the most important research is being done overseas because the U.S. does not provide enough money. The caller referred to a psychology professor who said research on mirror neurons is going overseas. Professor Shakhashiri said the American people continue to be very generous in funding science, but whether it’s enough is a different question. All levels of government constantly re-evaluate the funding of science and technology, and Professor Shakhashiri noted that in some federal budgets, the National Institutes of Health has gotten more money than it asked for because Congress wanted to combat a “disease of the month.” He said scientists must communicate the value of research and what it can do for society, because the taxpayers ultimately pay for it (not only paying for government-sponsored research, but he also noted that most private funding involves tax write-offs). Any discipline can feel under-funded at any given time, Professor Shakhashiri continued, but added that right now neuroscience is hot, and finding many new discoveries.

  • Another caller said he is disgusted with the way the media portray science. He said the media put out a lot of nonsense and ignore important details while playing up trivia.  Professor Shakhashiri said the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.  He said science and the media are two different cultures and the responsibility for communicating science ultimately rests with scientists, who should take more time to explain their work in terms the public can understand. He noted that the WISL offers a prize of $500 to any chemistry graduate student who includes in their PhD thesis a chapter explaining the work to non-scientists—to their family, public officials and the media. Professor Shakhashiri says this will influence their thesis advisor and review committee as well. The program was announced last spring and Professor Shakhashiri says it’s doing well.

  • Larry asked about the journalistic practice of getting all sides of a story, a basis of training in journalism. Larry asked, if 99 percent of scientists think one way, and only one per cent disagree, is it fair to present both sides, making it seem like a 50-50 split? Professor Shakhashiri said this is why we need good science writers, but many newspapers are laying off science writers and CNN recently dropped all its science reporters. In our own community we have a Pulitzer Prize award-winning writer, Deborah Blum, and another acclaimed science and environmental writer, Ron Seely of the Wisconsin State Journal. “Facts are facts and science is not democratic,” Professor Shakhashiri continued, “but scientists must learn to communicate results in a fair and understandable way.” Climate change is highly politicized, but Professor Shakhashiri said that’s OK because we are a democracy and need open debate to understand the science. He added that the conversation must be open and respectful, respecting the person if not the position. There are several excellent science writing programs in the country, like our own at UW-Madison in the Journalism School and in Life Sciences Communications, at MIT and UC-Santa Cruz.

  • A caller asked if the Earth has the same land mass and the same amount of water that it had billions of years ago.  Professor Shakhashiri said the elements are in the same ratio but their combinations change. For example, the Earth initially had no free oxygen in its atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels has put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and, while the industrial revolution produced wonderful results, it also has adverse consequences, he concluded.

  • The caller also asked whether science and religion will eventually agree. Professor Shakhashiri said they are very compatible. WISL has sponsored lectures on Science and Religion. “Science and religion are the two strongest forces in the world today,” Professor Shakhashiri continued, “and we must respect each other’s views and work harder to make them both serve us well in sustaining life on the planet.”

  • A caller expressed concern that legislators do not get enough scientific information, noting that several members of the U.S. Senate believe that human caused global warming is a hoax. Professor Shakhashiri urged listeners to be active and vigilant but also respectful in order to advance public interests.

  • Two listeners responded by email to Professor Shakhashiri’s question about how they learn about science. On emailer said Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television are his main source of science information. The other emailer said she got information from a variety of sources including radio, books, the Internet and conferences, and called for improvement in science literacy. Professor Shakhashiri said scientists must engage the public to promote its understanding of science, but added that scientists must understand the public, and the fact that there is not one public but many.

  • Larry reminded the audience about the upcoming 41st ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS CHEERY IN THE LAB OF SHAKHASHIRI shows on December 4 and December 5 and how to obtain free tickets.

March 9, 2010 Larry Meiller Show Listen to this broadcast
  • Larry began by asking about President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget which provides some increases for scientific research while most discretionary funding would get no increases or even cuts. Professor Shakhashiri said the proposed budget is a breath of fresh air in its support of science and technology, but he cautioned that it’s only a proposal and must still pass Congress. This is an election year and Congress might make significant changes. Professor Shakhashiri said he would like to be optimistic that the proposals will pass. They cover the spectrum of science funding from the budget of the National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation to programs that promote excellence in education. Professor Shakhashiri said that as a scientist, he’s pleased, but he also noted that the federal government is running a huge deficit, and he added that as a citizen he’s concerned about the deficit we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. But science and technology drive the economy, he continued, and a lot of good can come out of science funding.

  • Larry asked about the President’s Race to the Top program to improve education. Forty-one states applied to get some of the four billion dollars allocated. Wisconsin applied but was not one of the 16 finalists. Larry asked why Wisconsin failed to get money. Professor Shakhashiri said the program is a competition, not a handout. Despite not being selected in this phase of the competition, Wisconsin should develop strategies to improve education and to meet requirements for securing federal funds under this program. He also noted that there will  be more money for the program in the future. Professor Shakhashiri said Wisconsin has some problems, most obviously issues related to the largest district in the state, the Milwaukee Public Schools, which has many poor students and a high dropout rate. Professor Shakhashiri said the legislature, the governor and citizens should try to develop effective strategies for all districts, not just Milwaukee. Last year, Professor Shakhashiri challenged the state’s schools of education to graduate a total of 200 teachers each year who would be contracted to teach in the Milwaukee district. He said everyone has in interest in seeing that the state’s largest school district provides quality education, and he renewed the challenge to place and retain quality teachers in Milwaukee. Professor Shakhashiri also noted that the Race to the Top is only one mechanism for improving education, and said the overall story is not one of gloom and doom. There are pockets of excellence around the state, he continued, but the state must help those who have fallen behind.

  • Larry noted that five faculty members at the UW-Madison will receive awards at the spring national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the largest single-discipline professional organization in the world. Four of the honorees are chemistry professors:  Lawrence Dahl, Helen  Blackwell, Clark Landis and Martin Zanni. The fifth honoree is Ron Seeley, science reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal and a senior lecturer in the UW-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences where he teaches courses on science writing. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s the first time a reporter for a relatively small newspaper has been honored. Larry also teaches communications in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and said Seeley is a great teacher whose classes are always packed. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s also the responsibility of scientists to communicate what they are doing. While print media circulations are going down, Professor Shakhashiri said there is still good science reporting, noting that Larry often has scientists as guests discussing topics ranging from weather to insects. He said scientists must take a deeper interest in communicating what they do, noting that there are many fascinating discoveries to report, and that reporting is a very serious responsibility. Professor Shakhashiri said he would like to hear listener’s perceptions of the Race to the Top and Wisconsin’s situation. “Do people care?” he asked.

  • The first caller asked about getting tickets to the annual Christmas Lecture, “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, In the Lab of Shakhashiri.” Professor Shakhashiri said that the program is offered four times during the first weekend in December and free tickets are issued to control the size of the crowd and assure seating.
    More Information

  • A caller complained that broadcast news, with the exception of National Public Radio, is so politicized around science that it’s not possible to get good information from the mainstream media. Professor Shakhashiri noted that people today are deluged with information and distractions, but the Internet can be a good source for information if users search carefully and critically. He said several government web sites like those of the EPA, NOAA, and FDA offer good information. The caller said important issues have faded from public perception due to the shifts in the media. He said even people he knows who frequent an organic market are, in his words, “clueless” about issues effecting them. Professor Shakhashiri said people have to search and read to find good information. The challenge is how to get people to search, he concluded.

  • A caller asked what is Professor Shakhashiri’s favorite element. He said that currently his favorite is zirconium, element 40, which corresponds to the 40th anniversary of his annual Christmas Lecture, “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, In the Lab of Shakhashiri.” Each lecture includes a biography of the element corresponding to the anniversary number. (This December it will be element 41, Niobium.) Other than that, he said it’s impossible to determine a favorite, though carbon and oxygen are obvious choices, since life as we know it would be impossible without them and our bodies consist largely of those two elements. The caller also asked for information on the use of biological agents to promote mechanical processes. Larry said the UW-Madison College of Engineering has several projects along those lines and urged the caller to check out their web site for articles on the projects.

  • A caller said his high-school-age daughter is taking a course in probability and statistics, and he deplored the lack of sophistication among most Americans in doing things like calculating risks. He said teaching statistics should begin in grade school. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s not lack of ability to understand statistics--many sports fans can’t get enough of batting averages and other sports statistics--it’s just that they are focused in one area. He noted that understanding probability and risk assessment is vital in many areas such as buying insurance or buying stocks, and he agreed that the area should get additional emphasis.

  • Larry asked abuot the benefits of investing in research, noting that many other countries, including China and India, are increasing their investment. Professor Shakhashiri said they see what we’ve done. It’s a tribute to the U.S. that the leaders of other countries want to duplicate our success, he said, and it shows that our education system is successful despite its complexity and diversity. The challenge is sustaining that success, which makes investment by the state and federal governments vital, he continued, because science and technology drive the economy.

  • A caller, who identified himself has having moved from New York to Madison four years ago, said people in Wisconsin don’t seem to appreciate that they have a pre-eminent university. He said the University spends too much time fighting the legislature and suggested that the UW-Madison should become a private school. Professor Shakhashiri said that, although the state contributes only about 20 percent of the costs of UW-Madison, it’s a state institution. Calling himself a strong advocate of public education at all levels, Professor Shakhashiri said people in Wisconsin do not take the University for granted. “My colleagues and I don’t take it for granted”, he continued. “We try to communicate with the legislature and the governor and have to keep working with them.”  They appreciate us, he said, but have not manifested that appreciation with appropriate funding. Part of the reason that state support is only at 20 percent, he said, is that faculty members are so good at getting grants that the legislature may think less state money is needed—for facts and figures, click here. But the people of Wisconsin should not give up on funding the University, Professor Shakhashiri said: “The generosity of Wisconsin citizens through the decades is responsible for the excellence we have.”

January 12, 2010 Larry Meiller Show
Listen to this broadcast
  • Professor Shakhashiri began with a suggestion for a future guest for Larry: Jeff Skiles, the co-pilot of the U.S. Airways plane that successfully ditched in the Hudson River. Skiles was a student in Professor Shakhashiri’s chemistry class, as were regular Wisconsin Public Radio guests Phil Pelliteri, the insect expert, and Patricia McConnell, the animal behavior expert. Professor Shakhashiri said he has seen Jeff Skiles since the heroic landing.

  • Larry asked about a study published in "Science" magazine which said the U.S. is losing its competitiveness due to poorly trained students and lack of incentives to go into science and engineering. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s important to find ways to retain successful people in science and engineering. He said there is leakage‑‑many who are trained in science pursue other endeavors such as mathematicians who go to work on Wall Street. Professor Shakhashiri said this can be a good thing‑‑scientific knowledge ability is needed in all fields‑‑but there’s also a need for a good scientific work force. Leakage can be combated by attracting more people to science and engineering, he said. While there are hiccups in the job market, he continued, some jobs in science pay well, and people need proper training in science regardless of their profession. Science literacy makes them better citizens and members of society.

  • Larry asked about a report from the National Science Foundation which says the federal government is the largest source of money for research and development, but that its share is shrinking. The report also shows that the University of Wisconsin‑Madison is one of the biggest recipients of federal money. Professor Shakhashiri said his colleagues have been very successful. In fiscal 2009, the UW‑Madison received over 1.1 billion dollars for sponsored research (about half from the federal government). “This is a tribute to the quality of the people and the environment at the University,” he continued.  Professor Shakhashiri said he’s proud to be part of the University, where he has been a faculty member for 40 years. “Having a world class University is not an accident,” he continued, pointing out that in 2008 the University was third in the country in getting federal funds, amounting to 587 million dollars. View the full list.

  • Professor Shakhashiri said the emphasis on life sciences is correct, but noted that advances in all sciences are due to basic research in physical sciences. Attracting and keeping young people is the key to continued success, he continued. The amount of research money is an indicator of how good we are, he said, but the real test is what we do with it to support students and everyone throughout the country.

  • A caller asked about reports that some scientists are questioning Einstein’s theory of relativity. Professor Shakhashiri said he did not know the answer to the question, but added that there are always questions in science and that progress is made by being skeptical.

  • Another caller asked how much of the federal research money comes from the defense budget. Professor Shakhashiri said some comes from the defense budget and that all research at the University is open and apportioned by a competitive process.

  • Another caller challenged a comment made by Professor Shakhashiri on a previous program. The caller said he has great respect for Professor Shakhashiri, who makes science accessible and has done great things for the University, but he took issue with a statement that parents put too much pressure on their children to get top grades. The caller said admission policies are so strict that most students would not be at UW without parents pushing them to get good grades in high school. Unless students are in the top 10 percent of their high school class, they can’t get in to Madison, the caller said, and parents have to push students for their own good. Professor Shakhashiri said parents want the best for their children and a good academic record is highly desirable, but  everyone should not expect an A in every course. He said students have told him that parents apply undue pressure when they do not get all As. “Grades are important, but learning is more important,” he continued. Courses should inspire students to learn, he said, and learning does not stop at the end of the semester. Professor Shakhashiri added that he does take issue with the grade standards for admission, but that’s another topic.

  • The caller followed up, saying he agrees with Professor Shakhashiri’s philosophy but that the University’s academic policies do not support his perspective. The University creates an atmosphere that if your grades are not high enough, you don’t belong, he continued. Professor Shakhashiri said he knows of students who were admitted with great academic records but who were not prepared for work in his classroom. He said, “My job is to take what they have, overcome any deficiencies and inspire those who are prepared to do well, no matter what career they choose. It gives me goose bumps to hear from former students who got Cs and are doing great now. This is what the University aspires to do, to inculcate the a love of learning.”

  • A caller asked about the use of thorium as a fuel in nuclear reactors, which he read about in "Wired" magazine. Professor Shakhashiri said he hadn’t seen the article, but that thorium is a nuclear material and there are many activities at the UW‑Madison dealing with nuclear energy. He said he learns a lot on Larry’s show. Thorium can be used as a nuclear fuel to generate energy.

  • A caller asked what happened to the European scientists whose e-mails were hacked,
    e-mails the caller said indicated that they lied about global climate change. The caller asked whether anything happened to them and whether there are any examples of people kicked out of their jobs. Professor Shakhashiri said there have been numerous cases of scientists discovered falsifying data. They were not tolerated and lost their jobs. The scientific community has to be vigilant, he said, and people punished. The climate change e-mails are being investigated, he continued, and the people who sent them were wrong, but he added that this incident does not discredit the science of climate change.

  • Another caller identifying herself as a home schooler, said she found Professor Shakhashiri’s chemistry curriculum online and used much of it, and both of her sons were accepted to the UW‑Madison. The caller said she has a warm feeling for Professor Shakhashiri and wanted her son to get into his lecture section.

  • Another caller said the University uses a lot of science courses as weed‑out courses, to select the best rather than educate everyone. Professor Shakhashiri said it has been true that some introductory courses have been used to weed out students, though the practice is not widespread now. The best faculty should teach introductory courses, he continued, to help students with the difficult transition to college. Professor Shakhashiri said he works hard with this teaching assistants trying to find better ways to reach students. Professor Shakhashiri asks his students to submit a short paper each week reflecting on what they have learned. This is a voluntary exercise, but he usually gets over a couple of hundred papers from a class of 350. The purpose, he said, is to motivate the students and help shape their future. “I don’t like the term ‘weed‑out’,” he continued. The transition students go through takes a lot of effort, he said, and the purpose of undergraduate education is to help students transform themselves into learners, not just cram facts.

  • A caller asked: what makes a good teacher? “I think about that a lot,” Professor Shakhashiri said, “and there’s no good answer.” Creating a supportive environment is important, he continued, and teachers should be experts in their field. “I would not be a good piano teacher,” he said. “Teaching is the most noble profession I know,” he continued,“ and good teachers find ways to share the joy and excitement of learning. I’m always learning from others how to be a better teacher.”

    In my teacher workshops and public lectures I describe the characteristics of good teachers as:

  • Competent in their disciplines

    Committed to their disciplines and to the profession of teaching

    Comfortable with the methods and techniques they use

    Compassionate with students (and colleagues)





For more information contact