TAMI ABDOLLAH We're talking about 93 bills that have been proposed in 35 states since George Floyd died
BROOKE GLADSTONE Around the country, legislators are pushing bills that quash the right to protest. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. This week's news that NASA flew a helicopter on Mars made for a notable moment in the work from home era. One of the guys behind that historic flight did it from his childhood bedroom.
BRENDON CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON My mom used to say, you know, you'll never make anything happen if you don't get out of bed. [BROOKE laughs] Touché.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you'll never guess what this child actor is up to now.
SPENCER FOX You meet someone and they're like, oh, you're Dash. You could be like, I just shot someone and they died. And they'd be like, cool, so like did you meet Samuel L Jackson? And that makes you feel like you don't have a lot of agency over your own life.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So now it's really spring, and with the change of the seasons come rituals that remind us of what matters in each of our lives. That is when we come to you, except in summer, we don't usually come then to ask for your support, because we matter to you. At least we hope we do. If you've never supported us with a donation in any way, would you? Now? It doesn't matter how much. If you have, would you please do it again? And if you're a sustaining member, would you consider giving a little more? Our show is ongoing, 20 years so far, and so is the need, not just for us, I'm thinking also for you. Our world never ceases to be interesting and challenging. Pandemics, injustice, leaders to be held accountable, entire systems falling in on themselves, riddled with rot that need to change. An ever shifting reality, lots of them, in fact, that cry out to be explored. That's what we do every week, and we need you, really need you to keep going. Want to be part of this weird project called On the Media? Just text OTM to 70101. That's OTM to 70101 or go to onthemedia.org and click on donate. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. For many, this week featured one of those moments where life pauses for a few minutes as we anticipate an outcome, waiting to exhale.
JURY FOREMAN State of Minnesota, county of Hennepin District Court, Fourth Judicial District. State of Minnesota. Plaintiff versus Derek Michael Chauvin, defendant. Verdict. We the jury in the above entitled manner as to count one, unintentional second degree murder while committing a felony, find the defendant guilty. This verdict agreed to this... [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The media duly recorded expressions of joy, relief, a momentary respite from sorrow, loss and outrage.
NEWS REPORT Justice has been served, and you can see the reaction from the crowd, how America feels. [END CLIP].
ANDERSON COOPER The verdict also lifted the sense of impending doom we've all been conditioned by generations of experience to feel each time a jury deliberates. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Playing out as we see it on the streets of this city. Those people who are peacefully protesting feel that justice has been done. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Funny thing about justice. It can't be extrapolated from one rare episode of accountability. And someone should probably tell Nancy Pelosi that sacrifice is not a silver lining for murder. What we collectively witnessed Wednesday was one man being held accountable for one crime. Justice with a capital J, no. When the enemy is institutionalized racism centuries in the making, victories are small, incremental and achingly slow. Wednesday's exhale of relief, it was just one moment. Progress, if any, will be measured from outcomes ahead. So while no pundit can know the effect of Derrick Chauvin's conviction on society, we do know that the consequences of the movement that erupted last summer are now being felt. Millions of people around the world took to the streets in the name of racial justice. The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, but there were also major episodes of violence, property damage and wanton destruction. And so our national vocabulary was tested. What has taken place? Is it First Amendment protected protest marred by spasms of rage? Or, as the Republican Party insists, are our cities under siege?
NEWS REPORT You see the response from the national Democrats Biden, Schumer and Pelosi, who barely acknowledged the rioting and the looting that's taking. [END CLIP].
NEWS REPORT So the cities are being burned and looted, businesses crippled, and the left wants police departments decimated. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The burning cities narrative is not new, but if wide public support of Black Lives Matter tells us one thing, actual legislative action offers a grimmer reckoning. Quietly, Republican controlled legislatures around the country have been introducing bills to criminalize protests or, as they put it, to stop the rioting. Tami Abdollah is a national correspondent covering criminal justice for USA Today. Tami, welcome to the show.
TAMI ABDOLLAH Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Let's begin with the status quo. In all these states where these bills that are under consideration, it's already illegal for rioters to injure police and civilians. It's illegal to damage property, illegal to commit arson, illegal to loot retail businesses. What's supposed to be gained by these redundant statutes
TAMI ABDOLLAH They up the penalties that rioters may face. They bring it up from a misdemeanor to a felony. They bring it from like a citation to a misdemeanor. They also expand what is considered behavior included in that rioting. It adds in things like taunting police or throwing an object, or even potentially the intent to throw something, whether or not you've actually hit a person as part of the rioting statute.
BOB GARFIELD Much of the attention is on Florida. What does the law that Governor DeSantis signed provide?
TAMI ABDOLLAH There are several aspects. One, it expands and really revises the definition of what is considered a riot. Making it, you know, a gathering of three or more people who are collectively intending to engage in, quote unquote, disorderly conduct and participate in, quote unquote, a violent public disturbance that ends in property damage, injury or and this is the key part, a danger of either of those things. It's really rather subjective as to what danger of creating injury or property damage might mean when you talk about a group of three people gathered together on the sidewalk or street. It also adds even tougher penalties for mob intimidation, quote, inciting a riot and defacing, damaging or destroying a monument. That language is specifically geared toward protecting the Confederate statues that are scattered throughout the state.
BOB GARFIELD So if I am in a cluster of three or more people and someone from that cluster throws a Molotov cocktail, or throws a rock at a cop, I am subject to be considered part of this three person plus conspiracy to commit mayhem?
TAMI ABDOLLAH Yeah, so that is what critics have a real problem with, that it sort of clumps people together and really leaves it up to the officer on the street to determine whether or not you are part of a collective. Whether or not you're included in this, and I don't even think it needs to be a Molotov cocktail. It could be a plastic bottle. You throw in a trashcan to the side of the officers and you miss. It's up to them to decide whether or not there was an effort to cause them injury or perhaps cause property damage. So it really can be rather subjective.
BOB GARFIELD There's similar legislation in the hopper in Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota. Are all these proposed laws using the same kinds of broad language?
TAMI ABDOLLAH There's a lot of it. There are tons of these bills that they want to become laws or have become laws that give drivers, for example, legal protections. Civil immunity if they unintentionally hit a protester. In Oklahoma. The language is, if you're, quote unquote, fleeing a riot and you untentionally hit a protester, then you are given legal protection. In other places, the language is a little more broad. That's notable because last summer there were more than one hundred incidents in which people drove their cars into a crowd of demonstrators just to like pull back for a second. We're talking about 93 similar bills that have been proposed in 35 states since George Floyd died in Minneapolis. Most of those bills have been introduced in Republican controlled legislatures, first and foremost. And, you know, they may or may not pass, but the political climate really favors them in places like Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and, of course, Oklahoma, where, you know, we saw it already pass.
BOB GARFIELD Red states, not to put too fine a point on it.
TAMI ABDOLLAH Yes. I mean, there has been legislation introduced in New Jersey and in New York. So, you know, there's that.
BOB GARFIELD OK, so passing bills and getting them signed into law is one thing. Sanding off the rough edges of the First Amendment, though, is not likely to go unnoticed in courts. It is hard to imagine these laws not facing court challenges at the earliest opportunity. And even with the current state of the Supreme Court surviving those court challenges. What should we expect?
TAMI ABDOLLAH I believe once we see these laws enacted in more places and as you know, the next protests, Black Lives Matter protests or any other protests out there, once those occur, I think we will see that arrests under these statutes will be challenged. The folks I spoke with indicated that that for certain is the case. But, you know, they can't say for sure since nothing has yet happened. You know, the verdict in the George Floyd case was potentially going to be a way to test these laws and challenge them as well. But given the verdict, we've not yet been able to see how things will work out.
BOB GARFIELD What has historically triggered so much violence has been miscarriages of justice. The Watts riots began because of a traffic stop that ended in police brutality, scarcely need to discuss George Floyd's case. And as a consequence, most of the civil protest has been dominated by African-American protesters, certainly not exclusively, but is this a protesting while Black set of laws?
TAMI ABDOLLAH Critics would say possibly, yes. Because as we all know, there's implicit bias. And because these laws and the bills that are trying to be passed include this vague language, it provides a lot of room for that bias to rise up and show. Now, one thing is notable when you talk about this history of primarily black communities rising up in response to what they view are problematic actions against their civil rights, that has been a very different case this past year. And it was noted to me by multiple folks I spoke with: civil rights attorneys, sociologists, that last summer was historic for a number of reasons. Not only may it have been the largest protest movement in U.S. history with 15 to 26 million people showing up and marching. But it was also the largest and most diverse group of protesters. Some communities primarily had white people protesting, which is not apparent in other civil rights protests and criminal justice reform marches as well.
BOB GARFIELD Tami, thank you so much.
TAMI ABDOLLAH Yeah, well, thank you. I really appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD Tammy Abdollah is a national correspondent covering criminal justice for USA Today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, let's get some distance. How about the view from 173 million miles?
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter made history with a series of brief but groundbreaking flights into the planet's way below freezing dusty atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than ours.
NASA DRONE OPERATOR Hover, descent, landing, touchdown and spin down. The Ingenuity has performed it's first flight. The first flight of a parrot aircraft on another planet. [END CLIP].
NEWS REPORT Very, very difficult to fly a rotorcraft at Mars. You know, a rotorcraft pushes atmosphere to generate lift. And when there is that little atmosphere, the rotor system has just been really fast. [END CLIP].
NEWS REPORT For everything else that's bad in the world. For everything else that we can't do, you believe that we can do this? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This feat exemplifies the challenge robotics engineers confront when designing vehicles to explore the Red Planet's mysterious terrain. But as in any pursuit of truth, what we discover there depends on the questions we seek to answer. Brendan Chamberlain-Simon is a robotics technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was a helicopter integration engineer on the Mars 2020 mission and the Mars Science Laboratory rover planner. I asked him what drew him to the pursuit of space as if, you know, I didn't know.
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON I was just a curious kid. I had a lot of questions that I wanted answers to, and space felt like the final frontier [BROOKE CHUCKLES] that was just ripe for having questions answered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what sort of questions did you have?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON I remember being very distraught that I couldn't wrap my mind around the concept of infinity. It just kind of drove me crazy. You know, I was probably playing a lot of Super Mario at the time, and you go on the edge of the screen and you can wrap back around, and I remember just thinking about that for hours and hours and hours, looking at the night sky. I was taking it very seriously. You know, I'd say to my mom, I'm really grappling with this. But, you know, a lot of it has to do with wanting to scratch the itch of exploration. There's no bigger way to do that than to explore space.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you're working from home. Were you directing the helicopter in your pajamas?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON So for the helicopter, not pajamas. We have been working on Mars time and there have been a group of maybe 50 to 100 of us coming into the lab every day. The commands that we send to the rover that I do do from my bedroom and often from pajamas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does that bring you back to the days of Super Mario?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON It really does, and it's so funny. I went to visit my parents back in June. I got to drive the Mars rover from my childhood bed. You know, my mom used to say, you'll never make anything happen if you don't get out of bed. [BROOKE CHUCKLES] Touché.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What's it like to live on Mars time?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON Very strange. The Martian day is 24 hours, 37 minutes and change, so it's just a bit longer than a day on Earth, which sounds like it would be very convenient, but in fact, it's kind of really in the sweet spot of: "oh, this is a bummer." We wake up 45 minutes later every day. So over the course of the month, I will go from starting work at 8:00 a.m. to starting work at 8:00 p.m. and all the way back around to starting work at eight a.m. again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why are you on Mars time?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON It's a great question. We give the vehicle on Mars an entire day's worth of instructions. We'll go to bed. It will execute those plans and then we'll wake up and it will have done the work that we asked it to do and we'll have sent the data back. So every day you get to wake up seeing this is how my commands went on the actual surface of Mars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you're in the driver's seat, more or less if the rover, what does it feel like?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON There are some times when you're looking at this brand new panorama from the surface of Mars and it's very beautiful, but it's very desolate. You can connect to this idea of like this is open space and in this exact moment, it's all mine. And there's something really special about that kind of solitude. There are other times when it purely feels like a video game. I can't even convince my brain that it's real.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you think you'd react if a little green man just sort of popped into view?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON I would be excited. I would be so curious to know what would change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What would be the first question you'd ask the little green man?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON [CHUCKLES] The first question that's that's an interesting I don't know if I've ever been asked that, actually. I went to go see a talk with some of the folks that designed the golden record and decided what was going to be on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The golden record full of humanity's greatest hits for whoever might find it.
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON Yeah, Carl Sagan worked on the Golden Record, and while working on that record, he met the person that would become his wife. And she was at that talk and she did something that I thought was so brilliant and so touching. She put on like a brainwave sensor and she did an hour long meditation on what it was like to be a human being, newly falling in love. You could tell that she really believed if we send this golden record into space and there is a species that is capable of receiving and interpreting this record, that that meditation on being a human being in love would just be as interpretable to them as the other things we put on the record. The images, the sounds, the text that they would receive that and understand that. And I thought that that was such a smart thing to include.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much, Brendon.
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON No problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brendan Chamberlain-Simon is a robotics technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a helicopter integration engineer on the Mars 2020 mission, and the Mars Science Laboratory Rover Planner. While NASA sends its best and brightest out to explore Mars, did you ever wonder if anything out there has been sent out in search of us? The search for signs of life like microbes on Mars or water or phosphine on Venus is applauded by the mainstream scientific community, but according to theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, professor of science at Harvard University, where he directs the Black Hole Initiative and the Institute for Theory and Computation, there is no such enthusiasm for serious research into the possible existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. And yet, he argues, the evidence is there. In his book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, he makes the case for the most compelling evidence we have. A streak in the sky captured by a telescope on the island of Maui on October 19th, 2017. Nobody ever got a clear picture of the object, which was named Oumuamua Hawaiian for scout, but in the ten odd days that followed, scientists collected as much data as they could and detected aspects of Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system that had never been seen before. Strange and shiny reflections as it spun and sped away from the sun, a weirdly smooth trajectory, no trace of ice or dust indicating it was losing mass, which would enable its speed.
AVI LOEB First of all, it didn't look like a comet. It didn't have any tail of gas or dust around it. Then the amount of sunlight reflected from its surface as it was tumbling changed by a factor of 10, which is much more than we usually see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you're saying that as it was swinging by the sun, the reflections were like 10 times brighter and then 10 times less than 10 times brighter?
AVI LOEB Yes, every eight hours it was tumbling. It means that it's at least ten times longer than it is wide. The best model at the 91 percent confidence was that of a flat object. So you can think of it as a piece of paper tumbling in the wind. It also exhibited an excess push away from the sun. And the only sense I could make of it is that it was due to the reflection of sunlight. And for that the object had to be very thin with a large area for its mass. We have seen this phenomena of an object that is getting pushed by reflecting sunlight without showing cometary tail at all. Just about seven months ago, there was this object given the name 2020 SO then the astronomers discovered it, realized that it's actually a rocket booster that came from Earth launched in 1966. And we know that its walls were very thin. That's why it had a lot of area. Nature doesn't make thin films that look like sails. The only question is who produced Oumuamua?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some said that Oumuamua was a strange comet or an asteroid. Others suggested that it was a fluffy cloud of dust that was somehow being held together.
AVI LOEB All of the suggestions made for a natural origin involved something that we've never seen before, like an iceberg made of pure hydrogen so that we won't see the cometary tail because hydrogen is transparent. The problem with that is hydrogen evaporates very quickly. So such an object would not survive the journey through interstellar space. Then the suggestion of a dust cloud has the problem that when it gets close to the sun, it will get heated by hundreds of degrees and would not have the material strength to maintain its integrity. My point was simple, if we imagine something that we've never seen before, then why not contemplate an artificial origin? And of course, there is a way to tell the difference between a naturally produced object and artificial object. We get an advance warning of a future object that looks as weird as Oumuamua. Then we send the spacecraft equipped with a camera, then take a photograph.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have been accused of presenting this idea that Oumuamua is a light sail because you've researched light sails very closely for something called the Star Shot Initiative. What do you say to people who say you have a light sail bias?
AVI LOEB Well, my point is more that it's artificial and not natural because it doesn't share the qualities of all the objects we've seen before. The experience is similar to walking on the beach. Most of the time you see rocks that are naturally produced, or seashells, but every now and then you see a plastic bottle. A plastic bottle is an artificial object and it tells you that there is a civilization out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you see Oumuamua as a plastic bottle, but your skeptical colleagues, you say they're just looking for seashells?
AVI LOEB Right! Actually, the analogy is a better one with a caveman that is used to playing with rocks all of his life. And you present the cell phone to a caveman. The caveman would say, oh, that's just a shiny rock.
BROOKE GLADSTONE An astronomer in that camp said that Oumuamua is likely a reddish and naturally occurring object, saying: we've never seen anything like this in our solar system. It's really a mystery, but our preference is to stick with analogues we know.
AVI LOEB You know, we can stay ignorant. We can always assume that we are unique and special, there is nothing out there. We never look through the windows of our house to see if we have neighbors. But if we have neighbors, that will not change reality. Reality doesn't care whether we ignore it or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You make much in your book about the scientific community's tendency not to follow the rule of Occam's razor, that the simplest explanation is probably the right one. You wish that the scientific community would approach science more like a child would. A child has to bump into the sharp edges of the coffee table before they realize they need to look out for it. These collisions with reality, with nature, they may be painful, but they're essential for progress.
AVI LOEB I call it putting skin in the game. Making predictions that can be tested by experiments. But the current culture is driven more towards demonstrating that you are smart. And that explains why there are ideas in the mainstream of physics right now that are not tested. String theory, Extra dimensions, the multiverse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The multiverse, for instance, suggests that there's an unknowable number of universes exactly like ours, in which every possibility could happen.
AVI LOEB Exactly. Scientists in the mainstream feel very comfortable working on them because there are no experiments that can prove them wrong. But talking about technological relics from other civilizations is completely pushed to the sideline, and that's what I don't understand because we exist. We know that the conditions on billions of other planets are very similar to those on Earth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A quarter of stars in the universe may host habitable planets, maybe more than half of all sun-like stars in the Milky Way. I mean, we're talking about billions, right?
AVI LOEB Billions. And so I don't think it's an extraordinary claim to say let's search for things like us that may have existed in the past around other stars. Why is that considered outrageous? Most of the stars formed billions of years before the sun. That means that a lot of them went through the evolution of the solar system billions of years ago. So we sent out the Voyager One, Voyager Two, New Horizons into space, and you would imagine that if such stars hosted technological civilizations, that there would be a lot of space trash out there, and over time it accumulates. So in my view, the wake up call from the discovery of a Oumuamua is we should engage in space archeology. We should look for physical relics that came from other civilizations. The survival of humanity could have a relationship to what we find in space, because one possible reason why we don't establish contact is because civilizations perish a few centuries after they developed their technological abilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is an idea you introduced me to it in the book called "The Great Filter," which strongly implies we better hurry up if we want a future because we're facing a deadline of our own creation.
AVI LOEB The Great Filter argues there were a lot of technological civilizations, but they were short lived. There is a very narrow window of opportunity for us to converse with them. They live for a short time when they are achieving technological maturity
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because of technology.
AVI LOEB Yes, of the type that we encounter in the form of climate change and wars and other disasters that are self-inflicted by technology. This may teach us the lesson to get our act together and avoid a similar fate. That's my hope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you suggest that the conservative tendencies of science can doom us as well?
AVI LOEB Yeah, I argue that extraordinary conservatism leads to extraordinary ignorance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You urge the world of science, actually the entire world, to make a leap of faith. You call it Oumuamua's wager, it strongly resembles the wager on God offered by the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal.
AVI LOEB Yes. So Pascal talked about God. As a mathematician, he said there are two logical possibilities, either that God exists or that it doesn't exist. However, if God exists, the implications are major.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because we could fry in hell if we don't believe in God.
AVI LOEB Well, the implications are sensitive to the culture you grow up in. His point was that you cannot dismiss this notion because the implications could be great and you have to weigh that in if God exists. I'm advocating not a leap in faith, but rather in seeking more evidence for objects that look as weird as Oumuamua so that we can take a close up photograph. My point is we cannot ignore the possibility that Oumuamua was a technological relic and therefore we should collect more data on objects that belong to the same class in the future. For example, there would be a telescope that is much more sensitive than the one that discovered Oumuamua coming online in a couple of years called the Vera Rubin Observatory. And it could uncover an object like Oumuamua every month. If we find one, a year in advance before it approaches us, we can send a camera that would take a close up photo. I mean, that's our obligation. The only way we will not know the answer is if we argue it's always rocks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The wager then is to spend money and allot telescope time to this pursuit. And you outline in your book several times when a conservative scientific community wouldn't allot telescope time. In the end, it cost our civilization a lot of time.
AVI LOEB Yeah, there were many such examples. And when I started practicing astronomy, the mainstream argued that maybe there are no planets around other stars. In fact, in 1952 there was a paper by an astronomer who said, well, just imagine if there is a Jupiter close to a star. It would take the star back and forth. We could detect that motion and infer the existence of a planet. And for four decades nobody attempted that because people said, why would there be a Jupiter close to a star? We know why Jupiter formed so far from the sun. Therefore, we shouldn't waste telescope time in looking for that. Then in 1995, a couple of astronomers discovered such a system and that led to their Nobel Prize a few years ago. That was the first exoplanet around a sun like star.
BROOKE GLADSTONE An exoplanet, meaning a planet outside our solar system.
AVI LOEB Right. And this field is now mainstream and there are thousands of planets known around other stars and we know that they're extremely common. And what we find in the solar system is replicated in billions of other systems. So you ask yourself, OK, well, nothing bad happened, eventually, planets were discovered well there was a delay by four decades and science could have been much more efficient if people were open minded to this idea. Just to give you another example, most of the matter in the universe is made of particles whose identity we don't know we don't know the nature of that matter and we call it dark matter. And for four decades, we've been searching for specific types of particles that will have no impact on our daily lives, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in searching for such particles, didn't find anything. At the same time, the search for technological relics from other civilizations is a thousand times less funded. And you ask yourself, how is that possible? If the public cares about this question, we have the ability to search. Why are we blinding ourselves?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why is science so resistant to it?
AVI LOEB I think the real reason is that there is a lot of discussion in the public about unidentified flying objects and science fiction. And a lot of people in academia want to distance themselves from popular discussions of this type because they are not based on scientific evidence. And also they are worried about what might happen if they are wrong, because the brighter the spotlight is on what you're doing, the more scrutiny you will get.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's riding on your Oumuamua wager? I mean, what changes if we embrace the idea that we're not alone?
AVI LOEB It will change our aspirations for space. If they exist, we could potentially communicate with them, learn from their mistakes. It will change religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs. Rather than fight each other, we might work together as part of the same team. That's really my hope. You know, we might think more globally and try to work out a solution to all the threats, all the challenges in the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there anything specific that you would want to ask extraterrestrial intelligent life if you found it?
AVI LOEB Yeah. What is the meaning of life?
BROOKE GLADSTONE How are they going to know?
AVI LOEB That's a good question. They lived perhaps for longer, and so we are brought into this world like actors put on a stage without a script. And, you know, we might look for other actors and ask them what the play is about. And it's quite possible that they will not have a good answer. And then we will know that we are not alone with our puzzlement about the purpose of our existence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
AVI LOEB Thank you for having me. It was a great pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr. professor of science at Harvard University, where he serves as director for the Institute for Theory and Computation. He's also the author of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, a former child actor confronts the loss of his superpower to the new kid on the block.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD and I'm Bob Garfield. The Academy Awards are this weekend. The coverage of the nominated films have tended to focus on how thoughtful and profound and little watched they were. So we decided to visit a, shall we say, simpler time. 2005, when the Oscar for Best Animated Feature was bestowed on the director of a tale about a lovable, if somewhat dysfunctional family with superpowers.
ROBIN WILLIAMS The Oscar goes to... The Incredibles. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD There was much that made this film special. It's campy 60's noir aesthetic, its nuanced portrayal of family gender roles, and of course the gifted kids. Violet the moody, invisible teenager, and Dash her fleet footed little bro.
ELASTIGIRL Dashiell Robert Parr. You are an incredibly competitive boy.
DASH You always say do your best, but you don't really mean it. Why can't I do the best that I can do? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD I must have been fabulous to have been in that movie and at the Oscars that night, but of course, the people who make the movies move on with their lives, or try to. For some it's harder. Like Spencer Fox, the former child actor who played Dash in the first Incredibles, but not its sequel. Out reporter Micah Lowinger tells the story of Spencer's complex relationship with that role.
MICAH LOEWINGER We begin when Spencer was a kid and his mom asked him, what do you want to do with your life?
SPENCER FOX And at that time, I was watching Best of: Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, on SNL every day after school.
CHRIS FARLEY Now, young man, what do you want to do with your life?
DAVID SPADE I actually, Matt, I kind of want to be a writer.
CHRIS FARLEY Well, la-dee-dah! [END CLIP]
SPENCER FOX I was like, what they do. And the way that that road goes is you audition for talent agencies. We had like one day or we just like walked around Manhattan, and went like a bunch of these different agencies. And one of them happened to think that I was a particularly precocious young, chubby lad. And they said, you got the gig. We're going to send you out for auditions.
MICAH LOEWINGER So you were a little chubby.
SPENCER FOX Not just a little chubby. I was objectively fat. Like, I was just this, like, ovular child.
MICAH LOEWINGER When I met Spencer almost a decade ago, he'd already slimmed down. He was full of energy and confident, just like Dash. I was told by a mutual friend to not bring up The Incredibles, but I did.
SPENCER FOX The audition was crazy. They said if you have any fun voices or impressions, you're welcome to do them. And so I did an impression of my grandpa [CHANGES VOICE] just being like this, like old Jewish man that always talked about his time in the Silver Eagle. [VOICE RETURNS TO NORMAL] I guess, his like nickname in the Army, was like the Silver Eagle, and they reacted very strongly. Huge stomach laughter, like the hands up in the air.
MICAH LOEWINGER He gets the gig, and Pixar flies 10 year old Spencer and his mom out to its San Francisco studio. A quirk of animated filmmaking is that you don't often get to record with the other actors. So Spencer taped the Dash parts in a handful of intense one-on-one sessions.
SPENCER FOX I was in the studio with Brad Bird the entire time.
MICAH LOEWINGER Dash doesn't have a ton of dialog, but Spencer and the director spent hours perfecting his performance, like one scene where Dash is chased through the jungle by two killer drones.
SPENCER FOX The whole thing was like, you need to sound like you're out of breath. You need to sound like you've been like sprinting. And I tried my darndest to act that. But as we have discussed, my experience as an actor was very limited. Brad Bird was like, this, ain't it?
MICAH LOEWINGER So he has Spencer run four laps outside around the Pixar Studios complex.
SPENCER FOX He did the first two laps with me. I did the second two laps by myself. It was all laughter the entire time. He was like, cheering me up. Come do we're almost done. And like, I remember doing the last lap and instead of, like, taking a break, you know, taking a sip of water, I ran back into the vocal booth and put the headphones on and went directly into reading the lines.
MICAH LOEWINGER In another scene, Dash is sent to the principal's office for putting a tack on this teacher's seat. He's nearly caught using his superspeed, which is supposed to be a secret.
ELASTIGIRL Dash. This is the third time this year you've been sent to the office. We need to find a better outlet.
DASH Maybe I could if you let me go out for sports.
ELASTIGIRL Honey, you know why we can't do that.
DASH I promise I'll slow up. I'll only be the best by a tiny bit.
ELASTIGIRL Oh honey, the world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in. We just got to be like everybody else.
DASH But dad always said that our powers are nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers made us special. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Navigating the fear that others will judge or punish us for what makes us unique is a core theme in The Incredibles franchise, and one that would actually surface in Spencer's real life, beginning in 2004. The Incredibles is one of the most praised and profitable movies of the year. Spencer walks the red carpet. He goes on Conan O'Brien. There are Dash toys in Happy Meals at McDonald's, and then he returns to regular life as a student in New York.
SPENCER FOX People were mean to me.
MICAH LOEWINGER Really?
SPENCER FOX I remember there was a day where at recess I was chased around by bullies while they were screaming incredi-fat.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's so mean.
SPENCER FOX And then that sort of like later just morphed into kids being like, what's good, Dash? Are you going to run away? Using it as an insult.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
SPENCER FOX But I just remember being like, why do I have to feel bad about this? And so that kind of like developed this weird gut reaction inside of me. I just sort of like associated it as like a negative part of my life.
MICAH LOEWINGER Around age 14, Spencer had to make a big decision. He was outgrowing kids roles, and once you go through puberty, it's so much harder to get work because casting agents tend to prefer adults who look and sound like teenagers.
SPENCER FOX So my agents were just like, if you want to keep doing this, you need to work like four times as hard. You need to probably not be in real school. Change your life completely and dedicate it to acting. And I was like, I do not want to do that.
MICAH LOEWINGER Why didn't you want to do it?
SPENCER FOX I think that was like right when I started developing other interests, like right when I got into.
MICAH LOEWINGER Music,.
SPENCER FOX I was not an actor.
MICAH LOEWINGER He was playing guitar in a band, he read literature. He grew up. But even as a college student, Dash followed him. Walking into a party, and you meet someone and they're like "Oh, you're Dash." You could be like, "I actually know how to fly a plane. And I just shot someone and they died" and they'd be like, "Cool, so like, did you meet Samuel L Jackson?" And that makes you feel like you don't have a lot of agency over your own life. Meanwhile, his indie pop band, Charlie Bliss was attracting press. They were racking up millions of streams on Spotify, and in 2017, they started touring the world.
SPENCER FOX I'm in England. We've just released our second record. It feels amazing. Here's this great sold out show in Manchester and in between songs people have screamed like Dash. Why are you screaming that at me right now?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
SPENCER FOX Here's this entirely different creative endeavor that I've been embarking on for a full decade now and I'm still being defined by this thing that I did when I was 10 years old.
MICAH LOEWINGER Before I began interviewing Spencer for this story, I didn't know anything about the bullying or the heckling. Now I understand that his caginess was more than a fear of being pigeonholed as "The Dash" guy. It was about protecting himself from the nagging fear that maybe he'd peaked young, though we didn't start talking about any of this until...
NEWS REPORT A sequel to The Incredibles is finally on its way. And Disney has officially announced the film will arrive in theaters on June 21, 2019. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I remember one time we talked about it, I was like, have you seen it? And you just you reacted very strongly and you were like, No, I'm not seeing that stupid movie.
SPENCER FOX The fact that I have not seen it, it's like purely just a formality of the fact that I have been touring for, like, the past like 5 years almost straight.
MICAH LOEWINGER But I guess to push back.
SPENCER FOX Yeah, yeah sure.
MICAH LOEWINGER You have had time to see it.
SPENCER FOX Am I going to go out of my way to watch the sequel? I'm just not.
MICAH LOEWINGER But OK, [SPENCER GUFFAWS] go out of your way. As if like –.
SPENCER FOX This is some gotcha journalism man. Micah showed up outside my apartment with a full news team like "Spencer Fox, the movie's been out for 4 years. What's your excuse? [MICAH LAUGHS] To hold a press conference at Town Hall. "Listen, I want to address the allegations about the fact that I have not yet seen The Incredibles 2. First and foremost, I would never do anything to besmirch The Incredibles franchise. I want the insight. You know, I feel like – okay, here, here. We can, let's let's backtrack. [SCOFFS] How can you possibly fall back on the excuse that, like, oh, I just like haven't got around to it. You're right.
MICAH LOEWINGER It seems like you've a really complicated feelings around being Dash.
SPENCER FOX Yes.
MICAH LOEWINGER It seems to me like it's kind of cursed.
SPENCER FOX I have so much guilt in admitting to that.
MICAH LOEWINGER But wouldn't watching The Incredibles to take something off your shoulders? You're no longer Dash, someone else's Dash.
SPENCER FOX That feels like. Now, this is fully, no longer a part of your life.
MICAH LOEWINGER Do you know anything about the kid they cast?
SPENCER FOX I know that his name is Huck Milner. I don't know much else about him.
MICAH LOEWINGER On one hand, you have been tormented by this thing that defined you at a very young age. And on the other hand, maybe part of the reason that you haven't watched Incredibles 2 is because you're not ready to give it up.
SPENCER FOX 100 percent. It's almost like watching someone you really care about just move on and prosper.
MICAH LOEWINGER Do you feel that Dash has been taken from you?
SPENCER FOX Some part of me feels as though I am having something taken from me. The one thing that I did know about the sequel is that it takes place directly after the first movie. And like maybe that triggers the gut reaction of being like, keep me away from this thing. It's so close to home. I think if there was more fictional space and narrative space between the first and second movie, I would maybe have more comfort in the fact that I was not cast. But this is all it all sounds so silly, because it's like, no, you sh*t weren't cast. You are now 27 and the character is 11.
MICAH LOEWINGER But you’re Dash.
SPENCER FOX I was.
MICAH LOEWINGER But I'm saying it's not crazy to identify with Dash.
SPENCER FOX It just feels crazy to me because I feel like I've been trying my entire life to be like, oh, I'm better than this. I don't I don't need to be defined by this. And now the second movie comes out and I'm like, I can't look at it. But I think that's the truth behind any strong attachment that you retain during your adult life. Is there's always going to be these conflicting emotions about how far it drifts away from you, and the, you know, the question of like how much control do you have over this relationship.
MICAH LOEWINGER And the one bit of control that you've had is just not watching the movie.
SPENCER FOX Absolutely.
MICAH LOEWINGER So...should we watch it?
SPENCER FOX Let's watch The Incredibles 2.
MICAH LOEWINGER We put on the movie. As supervillains continue to threaten mankind, The Incredibles families struggle to find their place in a world that doesn't seem to want their help. [CLIP]
DASH We want to fight bad guys.
ELASTIGIRL No, you don't. From now on...
VIOLET So now we have to go back to never using our powers.
DASH It defines who I am.
- INCREDIBLE We're not saying you have t– what?
DASH Someone on TV said it.
ELASTIGIRL Superheroes are illegal. [END CLIP]
SPENCER FOX This is just funny watching this movie.
MICAH LOEWINGER How so?
SPENCER FOX It's just crazy. All of this imagery and all of these things are so like weirdly tied to like my experiences in life. It's like seeing family photos that you're not in or something.
MICAH LOEWINGER I wish I could say the movie moved Spencer to tears or provoked deep disgust or something dramatic like that. But this is a Pixar movie. It's built on emotional conflicts that set up satisfying character arcs with slapstick hijinks for comedic relief. Leading to a carefully paced, action packed crescendo and a heartwarming ending.
SPENCER FOX It was great!
MICAH LOEWINGER Really?
SPENCER FOX It was super fun. Yeah, it was so fun. What could you say wrong about that lovely film? Besides that, there's like a little bit of magic that was definitely there in the first one that just for some reason, it wasn't in the sequel. [MICAH LAUGHING] I can't...
MICAH LOEWINGER What did you think of Dash?
SPENCER FOX I think that Hulk Milner crushed it. Did an amazing job. It's silly that it's taken me this long. Just straight up silly.
MICAH LOEWINGER Before we started the movie, I told Spencer I had a surprise for him when it finished. So I reached out to Hulk Milner.
SPENCER FOX I knew, I knew it. [MICAH LAUGHING]
MICAH LOEWINGER And I asked him if he would be willing to talk to you, and he was like, Yeah, he really wants to talk to you.
SPENCER FOX Oh... wait to me?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God. I would love to talk to Huck Milner.
MICAH LOEWINGER A couple of weeks later, I get them both on the phone.
SPENCER FOX It is nice to finally meet you, man.
HUCK MILNER Yeah. Nice to meet you, too.
MICAH LOEWINGER At first it was a bit awkward, so as an icebreaker, I had Spencer tell the story of Brad Bird making him run all those laps around Pixar Studios.
HUCK MILNER Well. That kind of happened to me, too,.
SPENCER FOX No way!
HUCK MILNER Except I kind of decided to run around the studio.
SPENCER FOX It was your choice?
HUCK MILNER Well, during a lunch break, I just decided that I wanted to, like, get more into the role or whatever.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my gosh.
HUCK MILNER So I just ran around the studio once. I remember that day, I think I was wearing, like, an actual Dash costume.
SPENCER FOX No!
HUCK MILNER It's funny.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God. Well, I applaud your dedication to the role of man.
MICAH LOEWINGER Huck do you have any heroes? Are there any actors that you really look up to? Well, I definitely look up to Samuel L Jackson and I looked up to Spencer Fox a lot when I was like 5 or 6 because I remember watching the movie a lot and a lot.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God, that's wild.
MICAH LOEWINGER Huck, what was your audition like?
HUCK MILNER Well, what I did was I did first an MP3 audition, which was like you had to record it and then send it in. And I actually listened to Spencer Fox in the movie like a billion times...
SPENCER FOX Oh my goodness.
HUCK MILNER ...beforehand, because I wanted to get it completely correct. Yeah. My mom just found the original audio of me trying to imitate...You.
SPENCER FOX No way.
MICAH LOEWINGER We have to, we have to hear this.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God. Yes, please.
HUCK MILNER My name is Huckleberry Arthur Milner, Stuart Talent, Dash. Could somebody say Fast? Fast is my middle name! [SPENCER LAUGHS]
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah. We got to get you two together in real life.
SPENCER FOX So true.
HUCK MILNER That'd be cool.
SPENCER FOX Post pandemic. We're going bowling.
MICAH LOEWINGER After the Huck meeting, I called Spencer back. Is there room for 2 Dashes in your life?
SPENCER FOX Yes, absolutely. My relationship to the character, it was like under lock and key, super guarded, very hesitant to talk about it, but I think this process has been all about opening that up. And especially after just seeing the second movie, my relationship towards all of this has changed so dramatically, which has been like kinda beautiful. Dash is in good hands, man.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show on the media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Lowinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited... By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week with Sam Bair and Adrienne Lily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD and I'm Bob Garfield.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.