David Pogue and the Stories of Science

“I wasn’t entirely sure if they wanted to film me . . . or kill me,” jokingly said David Pogue to a rapt audience at the Department of Energy.

Pogue, a technology correspondent for the New York Times, was describing his experiences hosting PBS’ new NOVA series, MAKING STUFF. Partially funded by the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, the four-part series examines the developing world of materials science, in which researchers – including many supported by the DOE Office of Science at national laboratories and universities – are trying to make stuff stronger, smaller, cleaner and smarter.

On Monday Pogue and series senior executive producer Paula Apsell provided DOE staff with an inside look at the making of MAKING STUFF.

David Pogue speaking at a podium at the DOE

MAKING STUFF host David Pogue describes the developing world of materials science at DOE.

The series, which airs Wednesday nights (check your local listings) looks at materials, or, in NOVA-speak, “stuff:” Where it comes from (whether a lab, a farm, or a manufacturing plant), how it works, and why it might come in handy in the future. It also gives viewers the chance to experience that stuff with Pogue, from flying a hang glider to landing on an aircraft carrier, from chasing chickens to swimming with sharks.

Pogue wrecked a couple of cars over the 18 months of filming. He also ruined more than a few shirts. But it was probably worth the price since he talked to many scientists at universities and DOE labs who, he noted, “have great stories to tell.”

For instance, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have created the toughest ceramic ever produced as well as a new type of damage-tolerant metallic glass that’s stronger and tougher than steel. And researchers at the Joint Bioenergy Institute (JEBI) – a San Francisco Bay Area scientific partnership of three national laboratories (Berkeley Lab, Sandia National Laboratories, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), two leading universities (University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis, and a foundation (Carnegie Institute of Washington at Stanford University) – are working on science to enable “biofuels.” Specifically, their ambition is to develop the technology to turn an estimated one-billion-plus tons of plant biomass – including agricultural and forest waste as well as special bioenergy crops grown on marginal lands – into a renewable form of liquid fuels. Viewers who tune into the “Making Stuff: Cleaner” episode airing on February 2nd, will learn more about efforts there, as well as elsewhere, to create the energetic stuff of a sustainable future. And yes, at least one novel method truly makes the fur fly.

But Pogue’s and Apsell’s presentation at DOE Headquarters was about far more than chasing chickens. Like the series itself, it was about the amazing stories of materials science; stories that have an extraordinary impact on our lives; stories that Office of Science researchers are living every day.

Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science