Across the Bench with Elizabeth Fernandez

After a long day at work, you just want to unwind with some entertainment on your commute back home. What if you could learn about some fun scientific topics, say trash-eating robots or cannibalistic galaxies, through an engaging conversation? Hold on, we are not asking you to converse with your fellow commuters (god forbid!). You could just tune in to Elizabeth's podcasts to hear her interview experts on a wide range of topics that explore the role of science in our lives.


A podcast is simply a radio show that you can listen to at your preferred time. "We had storytelling long before written words, podcasts are just like that," says Elizabeth. She describes podcasting as a laid-back medium in which she can interview scientists and get to know them better. "For the people who are listening, it's almost like sitting in the room with the experts, and it's more like a conversation rather than being told something," says Elizabeth. "You can actually hear their voice; you can hear how they talk. It's sort of a relatable way to get to know people," she adds.


Elizabeth's podcasting journey started during her post-doc in Europe, when she first connected with students and researchers with diverse educational backgrounds. They started talking about how science affects the different facets of our lives. Elizabeth recalls a particularly stimulating discussion about the possibility of a parallel universe, and what it would mean for free will. Elizabeth was hooked; soon, she was scheduling lunches and seminars to spark more of such discussions.


 "I found that really fascinating, so I began to reach out to people in various places all over the world to talk about what they were doing," says Elizabeth. She also attended many conferences to meet experts in different disciplines. Elizabeth shares her experience at a particularly fascinating conference about 'our future in space'. "It brought in people who were historians, religious scholars, anthropologists, and all these different types of people who said what it would mean for society if we were to become more space-faring. It was such an interdisciplinary conference; that was a lot of fun!"


Inspired by these encounters, Elizabeth started her own podcast series, SparkDialog, to spread this knowledge to others. Her focus on ‘science in society’ sets her podcasts apart from the many other science podcasts. Elizabeth brings science into realms of philosophy, ethics, culture, and religion, which are ordinarily not considered together. Some of the diverse topics covered in her podcast episodes include science for monks, neuroscience in overcoming drug addiction, and the response of different communities to climate change.


A particularly interesting episode is the 'ethics in artificial intelligence'. Elizabeth feels that some people question the need for ethics in artificial intelligence, as they cannot imagine realistic scenarios where this might be necessary. Dr. Don Howard, a philosopher who she interviewed in this episode, describes several instances where robots would need to make ethical decisions, for example, in self driving cars, in healthcare, where patient-assisting robots need to ensure ethical sensitivity, or in autonomous weapon systems in war. "These robots, which have some degree of artificial intelligence, can go into the war situation, and they can decide who is an enemy and what a good target is while avoiding killing innocent people," explains Elizabeth. According to her, soldiers make such decisions all the time, but they could be tired, biased, or unable to see correctly. In this sense, some researchers believe that coding ethics into robots might make them more efficient than soldiers. Elizabeth is fascinated by Don's completely different approach towards ethics. "You think of ethics normally as what's good, what's wrong. But to think about what you put into a robot, you actually think about it in a very mathematical way," she says.


While Elizabeth is excited about the future of robotics, she is equally intrigued about history and inter-religious dialogue. In one episode, she discusses the latest theories about the 'Star of Bethlehem' with an astrophysicist, Dr. Peter Barthel. The Star of Bethlehem, also known as the Christmas star, indicated the birth of a Jesus in Jerusalem to the 'wise men of the east', according to the Bible. Scientists and theologists have been trying to understand the nature of this 'star' for hundreds of years by studying how the night sky looked around this time. "If you read the biblical story of what happened, you get clues that not everyone saw, rather understood, what the wise men saw," says Elizabeth. This indicates that the 'star' was not something very bright and unusual, like a comet or a supernova, which would have drawn everyone's attention. The current consensus is that alignment of the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) was most likely the 'star' seen by the wise men. Elizabeth finds this theory sensible, especially because the wise men would have believed in astrology, the study of the movements of the planets and their influence on civilization, which played a significant role in society two thousand years ago.  Therefore, they were likely to notice and interpret the alignment of these planets in the sky as a momentous event.


Through her podcasts, Elizabeth aims to spread the message that science has a role in our society, even if you are not a scientist. "I want to show people that science can apply to your life in many different ways, whether it's politically, religiously, or ethically," she says.


Check out Elizabeth’s podcasts at SparkDialog.


This is an Across the Bench piece. Check out Elizabeth’s podcast interview with Meenakshi here!


Meenakshi Prabhune (@minu_pr)

Guest Contributor, Signal to Noise


Meenakshi is a researcher-turned-science writer, passionate about the dissemination of science. Check out her blog and portfolio for more articles.