A science podcaster bares all
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN MACNEILL
Chris Smith isn't afraid to shed a little clothing in the name of science. A clinician and Cambridge virology lecturer by day, he moonlights as a popular radio personality turned podcaster: the original Naked Scientist and the voice behind the Nature podcast.
It all began at a Cambridge science festival in early 1999, where Smith gave a public demonstration on how to extract DNA from an onion using pineapple juice and a coffee filter. Smith, who was completing a PhD and a medical degree at the time, was noticed by a local station and recruited to promote science to the public during regular radio appearances. With the help of a grant, he and some graduate student friends bought their own airtime to do the same while entertaining audiences-with a weekly, live talk show, "ScienceWorld."
After a year's break to finish school, Smith's revamped show - dubbed "The Naked Scientists"- caught the BBC's attention, and the network brought it to Cambridgeshire to broadcast across Eastern England. Sticking to the hands-on style of Smith's first foray into science communication, the program now includes "Kitchen Science" demos as well as interviews-he's particularly proud of snagging James Watson.
Soon after starting a podcast for his own program last July, Smith walked into Nature's London offices and said "I think this is going to be big business." After a month's deliberation, they were sold on having their own, and putting Smith at its helm.
Nature editors asked him how long he wanted to produce the podcast. Until I die, he told them, "which at this rate will be about six months." Besides attending clinic 20 hours a week at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Smith produces a segment for Australia's Radio National and a science Q&A program for the BBC. And every Sunday he walks into "The Naked Scientists" studio for one hour of prep before the hour-long show. "I'm much better unscripted," he says. Timo Hannay, Nature's director of web publishing, calls him "very energetic and enthusiastic" and "a real workaholic."
Smith doesn't own an mp3 player and rarely finds time for non-science podcasts. "I listen to all the ones that we make very aggressively... and then I scrutinize the competition like there's no tomorrow, to see how we compare," he says. Smith's favorite is Radio National's "The Science Show," where he spent a year during a 2004 Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship. On "The Naked Scientists," Smith has gained fans of his own with his playful and often personal take on his subject matter.
As for his advertised nudity, Smith says "we need[ed] something a bit sexier, a bit saucy, because science has an image problem. Sex sells...it's a great gag." He doesn't attend wards unclothed, though ("I'd get struck off if I did that"). And how do his guests feel about it? "Oh, they strip off too," he insists, though one recent guest wouldn't confirm this. We'll see what happens when "The Naked Scientists" takes on what Smith calls "the next largest thing," videocasting.