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Larry and Bassam

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

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September 17, 2013 Larry Meiller Show

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  • Larry began by saying that the public’s understanding of science is up to science communicators, and he wanted to focus the program on science communicators and how they succeed, or fail. Professor Shakhashiri said he’s grateful for the invitation to share the joy of science and the joy of learning. He noted that everywhere he goes, people tell him that they hear him on the radio or internet with Larry Meiller.

  • Larry noted that the date is a special anniversary for Professor Shakhashiri. On September 17, 1957 Professor Shakhashiri, along with his family, first arrived in the United States. Professor Shakhashiri said he and his family are thankful for the wonderful hospitality they got in the U.S. and for the opportunities available to Americans. (Professor Shakhashiri became a U.S. citizen in 1974.)

  • Larry noted that there are many different audiences for science and scientific information and that communicating effectively is important. Professor Shakhashiri said he loves to share the joy of discovery and the benefits of scientific and technological advances. Science has greatly advanced society, he continued. It contributes to our well-being and is the engine that drives the economy. Science and technology can also be misused, he said, which is why it’s important for scientists to communicate to the general public as well as to specialized audiences. Science literacy is an understanding of how science works, what it can and can’t do, but not necessarily knowledge of any particular science.

  • We also learn from non-scientists, Professor Shakhashiri continued, noting that he has learned a lot from people he meets. There are many publics and many media, he said, but science permeates everything we do, and scientists should make an effort to communicate with all publics. There are some great websites, and lots of information readily available, but not everything on the internet is good, he continued. Professor Shakhashiri also recognized some great science communicators, mentioning the late Carl Sagan (25 years later you still hear people imitating his pronunciation of “billions and billions”) and Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”.  Professor Shakhashiri said that actor Alan Alda was one of the featured speakers at the recent national convention of the American Chemical Society, an event that attracted 11,000 participants. The Science Communication Center at Stony Brook University in New York is named for Alda, who has hosted science programs on public television. Alda drew a big crowd to his talk on how to communicate science. One tip: Don’t use jargon. Professor Shakhashiri also noted that the UW-Madison Journalism School has a science writing program, as does the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Journalism Department, where Larry is a professor emeritus.

  • A caller recalled the late Don Herbert, “Mr. Wizard”, who hosted a television science program for many years. The caller said Herbert instilled in him a lifelong interest in science. Professor Shakhashiri said Herbert had a great influence on him, as well. He said Herbert taught him the importance of interacting with an audience, particularly children. One science lesson he learned from Herbert: most audiences will say it’s steam you see coming from boiling water, but it’s not steam. Steam—water vapor—is invisible. It’s around us all the time in the air.  The “steam” is actually tiny droplets of condensing water, otherwise known as “fog” or “clouds”. Professor Shakhashiri says that when people see him wearing his “Science is Fun” pin, they often ask whether he’s Mr. Wizard, or Bill Nye. Videos of Mr. Wizard can be found on YouTube.

  • A caller said she likes astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who conveys his excitement for science on his TV programs. Professor Shakhahsiri called Tyson, who is director of the Hayden Planetarium and research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, another example of a great communicator. Professor Shakhashiri invited the audience to call in with their favorite science communicator. 

  • Larry noted an important science event coming up in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Science Festival, September 26-29.  The theme is “Curiosity Unleashed”. Full details are available at On Saturday, September 28, Professor Shakhashiri will present a “Science is Fun” show in the chemistry building on the UW-Madison campus, along with Cornell University Chemistry Professor Roald Hoffman, a Nobel Prize recipient. On Friday, Ira Flatow will host his “Science Friday” program on National Public Radio from the Discovery Center on the Madison Campus. Professor Shakhashiri said there will be too much going on for one person to see it all, but he urged people to try.

  • A caller said he brought his son to Madison recently to enroll at UW-Madison and met Professor Shakhashiri.  He said it meant a lot to him and to his son, and he called Professor Shakhashiri one of the best communicators of science. Professor Shakhashiri said he remembers the caller, who knocked on his door in the chemistry building. He encouraged the caller, and his son, to encourage everyone to learn about science—how to ask questions and how to get answers.

  • A caller nominated English particle physicist Brian Cox as his favorite science communicator, who discusses the Large Hadron Collider in terms that everyone can understand. Professor Shakhashiri said there are several Brians who are good at communicating science, including Brian Greene. Professor Shakhashiri said communicators must speak a language that’s easily understood. That does not mean talking down to an audience—he hates that expression—but he said everyone can understand complexity if it’s presented in their language. He added that communication should be two-way. “I have learned a great deal and don’t always know the answer, but I know how to find it,” he said.

  • Another caller mentioned Jack Horkheimer, who was executive director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and known for his astronomy TV show. She also mentioned Chicago TV weatherman Tom Skilling. Larry noted that Skilling got his start on TV in Madison.

  • A caller noted that wall sconces, even with electric bulbs, often make a black mark going up the wall above them, and wondered what makes the mark. A listener by the name of Tom sent the following via email in response: “Heat given off from the light would cause air to swirl as it rises above the light and particles of unclean air are left on the painted surface.  More evidence clean air is better for everyone.”

  • A caller expressed concern that there’s no sense of urgency regarding global climate change and wondered what it will take to get people concerned. Professor Shakhashiri said global climate change is one of the great challenges we face, along with population growth, water shortages, disease and war. If we do nothing, the consequences can be catastrophic, he continued, and climate scientists must communicate the urgency to the public.  He noted that the American Chemical Society has a climate science toolkit. Climate change is complicated, Professor Shakhashiri said, and made more so by people who deny it. “There is no doubt in my mind that human activity, the burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for the greenhouse gasses that are causing catastrophic climate change,” he said.

  • A caller said the internet has continual updates on information as opposed to scientific journals which come out once a month, and he called the internet a great source for young scientists. Professor Shakhashiri said the internet is a marvelous tool for sharing information—you can look up anything instantly—but he cautioned people to use their judgment. Journals benefit from peer review, while anyone can put anything on the internet, he noted, adding that while the information is not always reliable, the internet is a great way of quickly sharing information.

  • The last caller described himself as being on a slow learning curve, saying that throughout his experience as a student, he felt like teachers were teaching on high speed, and he saw mostly bewildered students. Unfortunately, time ran out, but Professor Shakhashiri said students need to sort out information and think about what’s said and how it’s said.

June 27, 2013 Larry Meiller Show

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  • Larry began by asking about the science behind fireworks (July Fourth is one week from the date of this program). Professor Shakhashiri said that the holiday is not just the Fourth of July, itʼs Independence Day in the US, a celebration of the values that are the basis of this Nation. Itʼs appropriate, he said, to celebrate with exciting, loud, bright fireworks. Professor Shakhashiri said the explosions are the result of firework shells prepared by professional experts—let me emphasize that, he said. Fireworks were invented in China more than 1000 years ago. The brilliant yellow in fireworks is caused by the heating of ordinary table salt, sodium chloride. The red is caused by compounds of strontium, blue by compounds of copper and chlorine, and green by compounds of barium—each element has a signature color. Professor Shakhashiri said observers can estimate how far away they are from fireworks by the delay between seeing them and hearing them since light travels much faster than sound. He said the public displays are put together safely and professionally and are often set off electronically. He also said itʼs just as fascinating to watch people watching the fireworks as watching the fireworks themselves. Learn more about the science of fireworks by reading this Chemical of the Week entry.

  • Larry mentioned that on Wednesday, July 3 Professor Shakhashiri will present a program featuring fireworks on the Terrace at the Memorial Union on the UW-Madison campus. The Terrace is a great place to watch the “Rhythm and Booms” fireworks display across Lake Mendota. Professor Shakhashiri will be joined by chemistry department colleague Rodney Schreiner, Bucky  Badger and the UW marching band directed by Professor Mike Leckrone. The program, which will include bright colors and explosions, is free and open to the public and will start at 8PM. Rhythm and Booms starts at dark, around 9 p.m. Then on Saturday, July 6, Professor Shakhashiri and Dr. Schreiner will offer another program on “Flashes and Bangs” during a Saturday Science event at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, at 10:30 am.

  • A caller asked how the flight of fireworks is controlled, since the shells seem to be round with no fins to guide their flight. Professor Shakhashiri said the shells are launched from tubes which determine the direction. Thereʼs a legal limit to the wind speed at which they can be launched. The shells are usually aimed straight up and are carefully prepared by professionals who follow the safety rules.

  • A caller noted that the quality of fireworks in professional shows seems to be improving, including fireworks that produce explosions resulting in shapes such as hearts and stars. Professor Shakhashiri said the technology of fireworks has evolved, and the shapes result from the way the explosives are packed in the shell. He said the goal of the demonstrations and his website is to teach people how they work, not provide instructions on making fireworks.

  • Larry noted that Professor Shakhashiri recently received a very prestigious award, the annual Carl Sagan Award from the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, recognizing great efforts in communicating science. Professor Shakhashiri said he knew Sagan, who was a great communicator of science, and receiving the award is a great honor. Professor Shakhashiri said he has devoted his life to communicating science, and appearing on the radio with Larry is an important part of that effort.

  • A caller noted the rapid growth of the world population and wondered if the Earth has reached its carrying capacity. Professor Shakhashiri thought that was a great question. With the world population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, humanityʼs needs for energy, water and food will be hard to meet. He said the people of developing countries want to have the same standard of living as those in developed countries and that everyone is entitled to enjoy the benefits of technology, but climate change is a global challenge. While there are natural causes of climate change, he continued, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that people are contributing to global climate change by burning fossil fuels, and there are no simple solutions. “We must make intelligent choices and be careful about the consequences of the use of energy,” he continued. While nuclear energy is clean with relation to global climate change, we must be concerned about proper disposal of the waste, he continued, because of the levels of radiation and the long half-life of some of the products of nuclear fission.

  • A caller said he has heard alarming things from population experts, that the current rate of the use of natural resources is unsustainable by a factor of 100. Professor Shakhashiri said there are different projections for the future, but all point in the same direction: population growth is the biggest challenge because it effects everything else including the availability of energy, food and water, and that competition for resources might result in more war.

  • A caller asked about research into energy from nuclear fusion. The research is ongoing, Professor Shakhashiri replied, with no practical results so far. But research should continue, he said, because a practical use of fusion energy would be a spectacular breakthrough.

  • A caller said he saw a report from NASA that satellite imaging shows that carbon dioxide actually cools the Earth by reflecting solar energy. Professor Shakhashiri said greenhouse gasses are good for us. Without them, the Earth would be as cold as Mars, but, he continued, too much of a good thing can be bad. He praised President Obamaʼs speech two days earlier in which the President called for reducing the production of CO2, promoting the development of renewable energy and international cooperation.

  • A caller also praised Obamaʼs speech and said itʼs good that the issue is getting attention since the news media have largely ignored it. Professor Shakhashiri said Obama has been consistent—he mentioned global climate change in his inaugural address. Professor Shakhashiri called for an agenda of action, and urged listeners to contact their elected officials, especially federal officials. Congress has done nothing, to put it politely, noting that there are differences of opinion. But climate change is unequivocal, he continued; itʼs happening and economic benefits could accrue from switching to renewable energy.

  • A caller asked why the Earth and all other celestial objects are round. Since the latest theory is that the moon came out of the Earth, where is the crater, and why is the moon round, he asked. When a body reaches a certain size, its gravity pulls it into a sphere, which is the most stable shape. Thereʼs no crater because the collision that caused the formation of the moon happened more than 3 billion years ago. He told Larry he likes to appear on the show because the questions are so educational.

  • A caller expressed great frustration that deniers of global climate change seem to be speaking louder than scientists and called for scientists to get together and speak up. Professor Shakhashiri said more scientists should be forthcoming, and he urged the caller to turn her frustration into action. Public education is needed, he continued, and scientists must communicate not only the benefits but also the problems of technology. The discussion of global climate change is not at a good level, he continued, because the consequences can be catastrophic. There are climate change deniers and while he respects them as people, Professor Shakhashiri said he does not respect their ideas.

  • A caller noted that scientists are engaged in some large international efforts including CERN, the giant particle accelerator in Europe, and collection at the UW-Madison of all types of weather data from around the world. The caller asked whether this cooperative model of science could be applied to other efforts. Professor Shakhashiri said that would be a good idea. While scientists are human in that they are competitive, they make the most progress by being cooperative and respectful of each other. Scientists encounter failure, but learn from that failure and generally treat each other with respect and civility which is lacking in some other areas, Professor Shakhashiri said. He called on everyone to engage in respectful conversation. To simply deny facts when they speak for themselves is not the way to carry on a conversation and solve problems, he concluded.


March 19, 2013 Larry Meiller Show

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  • Larry began by asking Professor Shakhashiri about the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who is currently acting US Secretary of Commerce and was a finalist in the search for a chancellor in 2008. Professor Shakhashiri said he and other faculty and students are very pleased with the selection and looking forward to new leadership. Professor Shakhashiri added that interim Chancellor David Ward, a former chancellor, has done a fantastic job, and that Wisconsin owes a debt of gratitude to Ward and his staff. The UW-Madison faces great challenges, Professor Shakhashiri continued, among them making the state more robust economically. The university is an economic powerhouse, he said, but must improve connections with every corner of the state and with state government.

  • A caller said that he was in second grade in 1957 when the Soviet Union put the first artificial satellite into orbit. He recalled that his science teacher announced the feat and said students must study math and science. He got the impression that if they didn’t, the Russians would come. The caller went on to become a medical doctor, and said Sputnik inspired many students. Professor Shakhashiri also remembered the day Sputnik was launched, just three weeks after he and his family arrived in the U.S. from his native Lebanon. Sputnik was perceived as a military threat and the government responded by promoting science and science education. Professor Shakhashiri said he’s grateful for the opportunities that came from the US Government's action, and now there are more profound reasons to promote science and technology, the engines that drive the economy. Technical training is essential but not sufficient, he continued: education is also essential in order to put advances to good use to help people not only in the US but around the globe.

  • Larry asked about Professor Shakhashiri’s meeting last week in Washington with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Professor Shakhashiri was invited to Washington to present a report from the blue ribbon commission he formed as president of the American Chemical Society (he’s now immediate past president). The report examines the purposes of graduate education in chemistry and how those purposes relate to both societal needs and the aspirations of students. Professor Shakhashiri said there was a good discussion on preparing today’s chemistry graduates for the next 50 years, the possible professional life of a student who is now 22.
    Read the summary report
    Read the full report

  • Larry asked about the sequestration of federal funds, which directly affects the UW-Madison’s research grants. Professor Shakhashiri said the country must pay attention to its fiscal needs. The national debt is mounting and elected representatives must take responsible action, he continued. Sequestration may not be the best tactic, but it’s what we have, he said, and losing federal money will hurt scientific research, education and the entire country. The National Science Foundation, for example, could make 1000 fewer new grants this year. While the NSF will continue funding existing grants, this decision deprives young investigators of doing research that benefits everyone, he continued. Sequestration will have a ripple effect on the economy—the UW-Madison gets approximately half a billion dollars a year in federal grants and contracts—and it will have an effect on young researchers and the local economy where they work. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s a signal to graduate students that their future could be in jeopardy. “All of our elected representatives must act in responsible and respectful ways,” he continued, “and the sooner they get off name calling and work on what’s really good for our country, the better.”

  • Professor Shakhashiri noted that something special happens tomorrow (March 20) at 6:02 am, the vernal equinox—the official start of Spring, though most of Wisconsin is still under several inches of snow. He asked the audience to call in and explain why Wisconsin has four seasons. The first caller said it’s because the Earth tilts on its axis. (When it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, the North pole is tilted toward the sun. When the Earth is at the opposite side of its orbit around the sun, the North pole tilts away from the sun, and it's winter in the northern hemisphere.) Professor Shakhashiri asked a follow-up question: why does the Earth’s axis tilt? The caller said it’s due to collisions with other objects. (Astronomers believe that the Earth was hit by an object the size of Mars about three and a half billion years ago. The collision titled the Earth and threw up the debris that formed the Moon.) The caller also said he bought a sundial at antique shop that he planned to use in his garden. When he tried to install it, he found that it didn't work because it came from south of the equator. He was able to correct the problem by turning it upside down. In the Northern hemisphere, the shadow of a sundial moves from left to right in an arc, that is, clockwise. In the Southern hemisphere, the shadow moves in the opposite direction. Professor Shakhashiri thanked the caller for a stimulating discussion.

  • Larry asked about UW-Madison expanding its Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs), as many other colleges and universities are. Professor Shakhashiri said the UW and others are carefully venturing into MOOCs and his colleagues are thinking about what it means to deliver information via the web. “My concern is that it is not used to substitute for the all-important one-on-one interactions necessary for education as opposed to training,” he continued. Education involves the proper use of technology, Professor Shakhashiri said. Knowing when and how to use skills and what to use them for is different from technical training, he continued, and I hope we never de-personalize the all-important human interaction. If we offered all first and second year courses on line, for example, that would drastically change the university structure as we know it, he said. The electronic revolution is here and will have an impact as great as the Industrial Revolution, but the new revolution is in its infancy.

  • A caller asked on what day the sun rises in the true East.  Is it on the equinox? Professor Shakhashiri promised the caller a succinct answer would be posted on the web. Here it is:

    The equinox occurs when the Earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the sun. This happens twice a year. When it occurs, the sun will appear to rise directly east (and set directly west) for all viewers on the surface of the earth.


  • A caller commented on the electronic revolution and online courses, noting that a lot of science learning comes from laboratory work. Professor Shakhashiri said that’s a good observation. Hands-on activity is very important, he continued, because science is an experimental endeavor, and the delivery of information on the web is not as interactive. Students can watch others perform experiments, but it’s no substitute for hands-on activities, asking questions and experimenting. Larry recalled dissecting a frog and a rat in biology classes. This is now available as an online experience, but Larry said it’s not the same. Professor Shakhashiri said teachers and faculty must adapt the technology to serve their purposes, but there is not yet a good substitute for personal interaction.

  • Larry asked for Professor Shakhashiri’s opinion on charter schools. Professor Shakhashiri said charters first appeared about 20 years ago because some public schools were failing. The jury is still out concerning their performance, but he’d like more emphasis on improving public education. If a public school is failing, it should be helped, and charters don’t help that failing school, he concluded. “I believe in public education, and it is critical to support education at all levels.” 




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