Monday, May 2, 2011

Why Ira Flatow's fascination fascinates me

Sometimes I inadvertently download the podcast for NPR’s Science Friday and end up with the show on my playlist while I’m out running. This happened on Saturday. I’m really not interested in Science Friday in terms of the subject matter, but there’s still something I love about listening when I find myself stuck with it: the host, Ira Flatow, has to be one of the most genuinely enthusiastic professionals I have ever hard speak.

Ira Flatow simply adores science, and I have such tremendous respect for that even though the topics he chooses to discuss are hardly ever of interest to me. To hear Ira talk about this experiment or that discovery, you’d think you were talking to a whiz kid at a high school science fair or possibly a newly matriculated graduate student. But not someone who is a veteran radio journalist in his sixties, as Flatow in fact is.

What I especially like is how sincere he is about what surprises and fascinates him. In the segment I was listening to, another reporter was describing the way a group of fire ants can form themselves into a floating raft if they fall into a body of water. “I saw that report too, and I could not believe it!” Ira exclaimed to the reporter. “I just cannot understand how they do that!”

He’s an award-winning radio and TV personality, and yet when he says he can hardly believe something, you realize what it means to be truly fascinated by your work. Despite all that he has witnessed, uncovered and reported in six decades, the talents of fire ants still have the ability to catch him completely unaware.

I don’t hear this same sense of wonder, of awe, in many of his media colleagues. Some of NPR’s most experienced personalities will sometimes profess to be surprised by something, but often you know what they really mean is “My surprise about this comes from the fact that I’m such an unparalleled expert on this topic, and it’s really rare for me to stumble upon something I didn’t know.” So they don’t sound truly awed, just dubious about the idea that a fact slipped past them earlier. Even Terry Gross, whom I find to be very modest on air, puts so much research into her interviews that her surprise usually has an undertone of “How is it possible that I wasn’t aware of this one small detail?” Whereas Ira Flatow’s tone of surprise comes across as humility in its best form, as if he is saying, even after almost 40 years in the business, “Can you believe how fantastic and amazing the world of science is?”

Maybe this resonates with me so much because as a journalist, I love talking to people about their work or creative pursuits. “Any time you find someone pursuing a passion, you have a story,” one of my Globe editors told me years ago. He’s right: not only the story of what the person’s passion is, but how it came to have that role in their life.

I sometimes feel I’ve made a career out of this reality: people talking about what fascinates them tend to engage me. I want to know what they know that I don’t, but more importantly, what they care about that I don’t. It’s humility. It’s the opposite force to arrogance. And it’s a wonderful quality for a person to have: the ability to communicate that they are absolutely flabbergasted by the wondrous world that surrounds them.

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