Discovering science with Dan Riskin

Ask Dan Riskin, co-host of Discovery Canada’s science show Daily Planet, what the best part of science is and he’ll tell you it’s the sharing of the process of discovery that brings the biggest smile to his face.

“It’s not that you show someone how you beat Bowser at the end of the video game, it’s that you show them how much fun Super Mario is, so that they are going to want to play the video game,” he explained during a recent interview from his studio in Toronto. “And science is better than Nintendo – I can’t believe I am saying that, but it’s true.”

Turning to his roots in biology, a discipline in which he holds a doctorate, he illustrated his point by explaining, “If you say to someone, ‘Do you want to come and see how mitochondria work?’ they are not likely going to follow you. But if you say, ‘Come on, we are going to take this animal and make it run on a treadmill,’ people are more likely to say, ‘Okay, that’s cool,’ and you sneak in the mitochondria later.”

Unfortunately, too many teachers and mentors get caught up in the details, which can squelch the fires of curiosity and discovery in those hoping to learn about a topic.

“Around my second year of grad school I saw this great graph of how fast a lion can run, and how fast a gazelle can run. With that one graph, it told the whole story of a lion chasing a gazelle, and I remember thinking, ‘Why am I not reading about lions and gazelles in a biology class until my second year of grad school? Why wasn’t that grade 10?’” he says, further illustrating his point. “Start with the lions; we’ll get to the mitochondria in time.

“The challenge when I am trying to get across science is not to help people understand how things move down a pressure gradient or how gravity and pressure are going to balance against each other, it is to encourage the curiosity that’s already inside them.”

Science and the mechanical trades
“Often people think that a scientist is a researcher for NASA, or somebody who ends up being a doctor, but there are people using those tools all over the place, all the time, and they have real interesting jobs that are exciting,” said Riskin, giving a nod to the practical application of physics, chemistry and biology that professionals in the mechanical trades deal with every day. “A lot of science happens without anybody realizing it,” he said.

“The whole thing that scientists love about being scientists, and engineers love about being engineers, and technicians love about being technicians is that you get a problem and you have to be creative and solve it,” says Riskin. “You may have solved similar problems before, which gives you a head start, but ultimately every problem is a little bit different, and there’s never an expert standing at the front of the room who is going to tell you the answer – and if there were, it would not be as much fun.”

Natural doesn’t mean safe
As the host of Monsters Inside Me, which is heading into a fourth season, Riskin has had the chance to explore a side of the natural world that’s not often talked about.

“The thing about Monsters Inside Me is that it reminds me of just how brutal Mother Nature can be,” he says. “I am working on this book, Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You, and it is a tour of all the horrible ways that Mother Nature is trying to get us.”

Most people don’t like to think about the viruses, parasites, and water and airborne pathogens that can do significant harm to one’s health.

“We live in a society where people don’t even know that it is brutal out there,” says Riskin. “They have this idea that nature is the warm fuzzy bag of peaches that just wants to give you a hug and a kiss. There are ways in which nature can inspire us, but nature created viruses, SARS, you name it. It’s a battle out there. What I am struck by all the time, especially in the popular media, is this move to an unquestioned ‘natural is good.’ We often hear, ‘If nature made it, it is good for you,’ and that’s just not true.”

One of the reasons why so many North Americans are oblivious to the dangers surrounding them, he explains, is the modern sanitary systems and infrastructure that exist to keep us safe.

“The fact that we live in a society where we don’t even know about those threats, that’s a testament to the work that your readers do, filtering the water and filtering the air,” says Riskin. “It’s a dangerous world out there. Thank goodness that people do good work to keep us safe.”

Written by Adam Freill.