Nuclear Street Interview With Dr. Randy Olson Author Of: DON'T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST: TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE

 An Exclusive Nuclear Street Interview with Dr. Randy Olson, author of DON'T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST:  TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE

- By Randy Brich -

After surviving the worst winter storm/blizzard to hit South Dakota since the arctic winter of 1967-68 holed up with my entire family spanning 3 generations in the Mountain Top Retreat in the northern Black Hills I drove home through a proverbial winter wonderland.

At home, going through emails one from author Randy Olson’s publicist caught my eye and I fired off an interview request to Randy Olson, author of DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST: TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE. To my surprise an email reply immediately appeared on my computer screen and led to the following interview.

Nuclear Street:  What has been the general response to the book?

Dr. Randy Olson: Really great. It went through the first printing quickly, and is nearing the end of the second printing. There was the initial wave of rave reviews from friends and relatives, but what means more in the long term are all the strangers who have connected with what I had to say in the book. One thing that's funny -- a lot of people enthusiastically call it, "a quick read," which is great. The editors and I wanted to maintain a light feeling to it and keep it concise (one of the basic principles). But what's also interesting is that it will probably take you twenty years to fully digest the contents of the book.

For starters, in Chapter 3 ("Don't Be Such a Poor Storyteller") I tell about how I spent over 15 years taking screenwriting classes and still mostly felt like, "yeah, yeah, tell a good story, whatever, we all know that." But it wasn't until I had two transformative experiences that I grasped what they were talking about, which were: A) "The Stick" -- I made a movie that didn't work in 1998 largely because it didn't tell a good story, and B) "The Carrot" - I made "Flock of Dodos" in 2006 which finally did work and prove to be popular primarily because I did manage to tell a good story.

As I watched the magic of storytelling take hold with Dodos I finally began flashing back to all those writing course and saying to myself, "oh, my goodness, THIS is what they were talking about." There's just so much to telling a good story. If you really are tremendous at it, then you should be making millions of dollars writing novels and screenplays. If, on the other hand, you ARE writing novels and screenplays and not making millions of dollars, you're probably not as good at storytelling as you could be, which is most everyone. Storytelling is an endlessly elusive art, but also infinitely important in mass communication.

Many of the basic concepts in the book -- improv acting, the four organs, story structure, the sideways urinal of Duchamps, likeability -- these are all elements of communication you can spend a lifetime trying to grasp or master and still need to work on it. Which is why I find it amusing when people say they read the entire book on a train ride and say the got it. Of course, I could probably read a manual on how to fly a helicopter in a few hours, but actually doing it ... ?

Bottom line: I'm still working on figuring out this communication stuff, and know I will be for the rest of time. And I really appreciate anyone who is interested in where I am with it. On January 4 I'm going to open a new "on-line journal," that will be a collection of essays that are sort of a sequel to the book. It will be located here:

NS:  What perplexes you most about some of the responses?

Olson: Actually, I'm not sure anything perplexes me, but the negative responses do amaze me with their predictability. As I wrote the book and had discussions with the editors I was constantly saying, "Now here's what the really technical minded people are going to say about this book." Sure enough, it's all pretty much come true.

There's a nice review of the book (almost as nice as yours!) coming out in Science Magazine in early January. One of the great things the reviewer says is this: Some readers will find Olson's autobiographical treatise off-putting and a bit narcissistic. But to be turned off by Olson's style only proves his point.

Those are wonderfully accurate words. Already a number of science bloggers in their reviews have called the book "overly-autobiographical." Which really does prove the point. It's not an autobiography by any stretch of the word. The editors and I made an agreement at the outset that no stories would go into the book unless they directly served to illustrate the principles being presented. An autobiography would have told about my childhood and personal life for its own sake. That's not the case.

These sorts of complaints become indicative of the problem. The very things the broader audience appreciates about the book (comments of "thanks for including some humor and even emotion") become the very things the more analytical types complain about ("Why did you have to clutter up your message with humor and even emotion?") Those sorts of complaints just come with the territory these days.

And of course, more importantly, most of the stories are told at my expense -- i.e. tales of my haplessness in Hollywood over the years, which I personally find amusing. Sorry, but I am endlessly entertained by stories that begin with, "Look how stupid I was ..."

NS:  What do you hope that scientists (and engineers) learn from reading your book?

Olson:  That art matters. That's a very simple way to put it. In the first chapter I use the photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger to illustrate the four organs of communication -- the head, the heart, the gut, and the sex organs. Science lives primarily in the head. Art tends to thrive more at the other end of the spectrum. One of the key principles I discuss (in the second chapter) is the need to "arouse and fulfill." Scientists have no problems with the fulfillment part. It's the first half of the equation -- the arousal part -- that they tend to fall down on. I hate to be crude about it, but it's like they'd rather just skip the foreplay and get right down to business. Need I say more?

NS:  What do you consider the most pressing environmental problem of the next decade?

Olson:  I think the anti-science movement is the greatest current threat I see in the science/environmental world. There is a growing movement of people with the attitude of, "We don't care how many diplomas and peer-reviewed papers and expert opinions you have, we think you're wrong." Yes, I know it's nice to respect everyone's opinion, even those who are lacking this thing called "knowledge," but the world of science is built upon a process that is far stronger and more reliable than just opinion. It's important that science and scientists not become so close minded that they are unwilling to listen to instinct, intuition, and even opinion at times. But in the end, there has to be a reliable objective set of rules that allow the strongest body of fact-based knowledge to prevail. Scientific credibility HAS to matter.

NS: What is your favorite website and why?

Olson: I'm a bit of a moron when it comes to the internet. My home page is set to USA Today with the next site I visit being The Drudge Report (and then the Surfline surf report and ESPN). I'm not conservative, but I really like the Drudge Report – it’s efficiently laid out and has a better sense of humor than liberal sites. I tried to be a fan of Tree Media's Science Blogs, and was part of a blog for two years, but as I said in the book, quoting stand-up comic Patton Oswalt, bloggers are mostly electronic poo-flingers. I still agree with him on that.

NS: Since this website is the premier nuclear power industry news website on the planet do you have any thoughts you would like to share with this audience?

Olson: Let's beat the hell out of scientists to make them better communicators, but at the end of the day, let's remember that science and scientists are our best hope for a better future.

NS: What projects are you working on and can you say anything about them?

Olson: My major goal is to "practice what you preach." One of the nice things said in many reviews of the book is that I tried my best to do this with the writing by using storytelling as a means of advocating the use of storytelling, by using humor and even little emotion in telling about the importance of humor and emotion, by being relatively concise in talking about the importance of concision, creating a likable voice to talk about likability (which was a challenge to the editors as they chopped out a bunch of very unlikable rants), etc.

Now that the book is getting a good reception, I really don't want to turn into one of those guys who wanders around telling people how to communicate science better without any evidence that I myself still know how to communicate science. That seemed to be one of the standard conundrums in film school with the faculty where you found yourself thinking, "Geez, if this guy really does know how to write a great screenplay, why isn't he over there in Hollywood making a billion dollars writing great screenplays instead of teaching us schlubs?"

In 2010 I'm going to be directing a new fiction movie -- a fun small story that involves a family trip and fossils. Stay tuned! I'll also be giving a few talks, running a few workshops, and visiting universities to show my movies which is always fun. And of course continuing to critique the science world on the ineffectiveness of its communication efforts, which will continue to stoke the fires of my enemies.

Dr. Olson can be contacted for possible speaking engagements and workshops through his website:


DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST:  TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE - A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich - In graduate school way back in 1977 my Molecular and Microbial Genetics professor possessed a speaking talent that transcended academia.  His lectures seized our collective minds as he recounted realtime recombinant ...
About Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  Following graduation he switched gears and began a lifelong study of ionizing radiation and its beneficial applications to humanity.  During the course of his study he worked as a staff Health Physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission specializing in the licensing and inspection of uranium recovery facilities.  He transferred to the Department of Energy where he worked as a Health Physicist at the Randy BrichNevada Operations Office and later to the Richland Operations Office specializing in environmental monitoring, dose reconstruction, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review E-mail Randy Brich>>

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