Tune in for science
Corning High School teacher brings big names and ideas to local radio listeners
“I’m Dave Schlom, reminding you that when viewed from deep space, we all live on a pale blue dot.”
So goes Corning High School science teacher and nationally known science writer Dave Schlom’s familiar sign-off for his weekly science-focused radio show, The Blue Dot Report, heard on Northstate Public Radio.
Entering its fourth year, Schlom’s show has featured some of the most prominent names in the science world—from planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini space-probe imaging team, to widely known Vermont space writer Andrew Chaikin, to author Ann Druyan, the widow of iconic late astronomist Carl Sagan.
The four-minute-long, interview-based show’s name is inspired by a famous 1990 photograph taken of the Earth from space titled “Pale Blue Dot” in which our planet appears as a tiny blue dot in the vastness of outer space.
The photo, explained Schlom, was taken at the urging of Sagan, who “convinced NASA … to turn the camera [on the Voyager I spacecraft] backward to take a ‘family picture’ of the solar system.” The shot, he said admiringly, captured a “most stunning” image of “Earth suspended in a sunbeam, lit up by the sun and surrounded by dust.”
Sagan later used the photo’s title for his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
“That image … showed that, oh my gosh, we really are a tiny dot in space,” said Schlom during a recent interview conducted at Northstate Public Radio’s KCHO studio in Chico while he was preparing for a phone interview with Menlo Park-based USGS seismologist Brad Aagaard for an upcoming segment on earthquakes. (Schlom, who lives in Red Bluff, comes into Chico “every two or three weeks” to record three shows at a time.)
Schlom recalled how he had telephoned Druyan to get her OK to name his show after the iconic photograph and book by Sagan.
“Annie said, ‘You bet—with my blessings,’ ” recalled Schlom. “And Annie was one of my first guests.”
Which led Schlom to the subject of just why he is able to secure such a high caliber of interviewee for his fascinating show.
“I get the best guests,” he noted matter-of-factly, “[because] I have a background in science journalism. I’ve been a writer for [National Space Society magazine] Ad Astra and Sky & Telescope for a number of years, and I’ve established a lot of contacts in NASA and with former astronauts.” (His article “A Look at Lunar Exploration for NASA,” will be in the summer 2010 issue of Ad Astra.)
Schlom’s “dogged persistence and hard work” in pursuing potential guests, and his ability to “speak their language”—the specialized language of science—pays off as well.
Not that listeners should be deterred in any way by Schlom’s facility with scientific terminology. Quite the opposite. He breaks down even the most hard-to-grasp science for his listeners, making it accessible and interesting.
In episode 53, for instance, in which Schlom interviewed Porco about the geysers recently discovered on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, listeners are drawn in by Schlom’s friendly manner and good questions, and by Porco’s likeability. When she says at one point that “Enceladus is every bit as exciting and deserving of exploration as we thought,” we believe her.
Schlom sees himself as a “go-between” between his interview subjects and the average listener—in the spirit of Sagan, who helped popularize such scientific subjects as astrophysics by, for one, appearing numerous times on late comedian Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.
“My partner Cheryl helps me,” Schlom added, speaking of his preparation for an interview. “I’ll ask her, ‘What kind of questions does the average person have [about a particular subject matter]?’ ”
“For example, synthetic-aperture radar measures height of the ocean [waves] in millimeters—how does that work?” offered Schlom. “[Cheryl] asks me questions that the layperson wants to know.
“Carl Sagan was a great scientist, but an even greater communicator,” offered Schlom about his “patron saint,” Sagan.
“He took a lot of grief, for example, for going on Johnny Carson and for doing Cosmos on PBS,” Schlom said. “A lot of the scientific community thought he was grandstanding, that he had a big ego.
“But he knew that without a scientifically literate public, science can’t flourish,” said Schlom. “It’s the same for me, in my own little way.”