I have a confession. As a producer working on the new season of the Joy of x podcast, sometimes I find myself editing episodes and thinking: Who let me in the room? It’s almost as if I’ve wandered into some hotel bar, and the last open seat is next to two folks deep in conversation. I’m listening in as they talk with intensity, passion. But they aren’t a romantic couple — they are sharing intimate details of their professional lives. Tales full of exploration and discovery. Of course, this scene is playing out in my imagination; the conversation I’m eavesdropping on is only in my headphones.
Our host, the mathematician and author Steven Strogatz, has a voracious intellectual curiosity, but it’s his warm and empathetic nature that makes listening to these interviews such a rewarding, even moving experience.
Every episode, I find myself learning something profound. Like when one of this season’s guests, the chemical nanoengineer Sharon Glotzer, talked about how, under the right circumstances, an “amorphous blob” of material can spontaneously change into “something with exquisite order to it.” Her professional life has been a quest to understand the interplay of forces in matter that create and destroy order.
Or when our guest Frank Wilczek, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, marvels at the puzzles of subatomic forces: “What holds the nucleus together when electromagnetism wants to blow it apart?” he asked. These are explorers who have charted some of the universe’s great unknowns, and I’m riding shotgun with them as they take Steve on a tour through key moments in their journeys.
But right now, my second grader is rolling on the floor, screaming. Her teacher is shouting her name, trying to get her to return to the class Zoom, to unmute herself, to turn on her camera. This is a daily occurrence in our house.
Yours too, perhaps. We are not alone. Life during the pandemic has not only stressed and isolated us, it has heaped new distractions on us, making it harder to carve out time and mental space to reflect and learn. Kids aren’t the only ones in danger of falling behind intellectually.
That’s part of why I take such comfort in Steve’s intimate and lively conversations with his guests. His genuine curiosity about them and their work — and their sincerity in sharing about it — creates a calm but invigorating space for effortless learning. For those of us who love science, there is something deeply comforting about pressing play on The Joy of x.
But there’s more to it than that. We’ve been witnessing a global debate about the value and process of science playing out in our culture. The collective discussion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how it is transmitted has provided evidence for another crisis: The public’s scientific literacy and ability to engage with this crisis is fragile. For the last year, our collective hopes for ending the pandemic have been pinned on vaccine development, even as 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups.
It strikes me that there’s never been a better time to get to know scientists — who they are, what makes them tick. Beyond teaching me about science, The Joy of x, like nothing else I’ve ever heard, makes the argument that a life in science is a life well spent. Steve Strogatz and his 12 guests this season are inspirational. The future needs scientists — of all kinds. Perhaps more than ever, we need people willing to dedicate their lives to this ambitious, optimistic, desperately important pursuit of truth.
You can subscribe to the podcast and listen to episodes from the first season on the Quanta Magazine website, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. The first full episode is being posted today, and new episodes will premiere every Tuesday.