n his podcast, Nate Butkus has talked radiation with a US government scientist, evolution with a Harvard researcher, and, most recently, genome-editing with MIT’s Kevin Esvelt. But ask him his favorite moment from the 28 episodes so far, and it has to be when he belched during a taping.
So it goes when the podcast host is 6 years old.
With help from his producer (his dad, Eric Butkus), Nate has parlayed what he says has been his passion for science since birth into a podcast downloaded about 4,000 times each episode and even an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s show.
On the podcast, Nate injects a curiosity, excitement, and, yes, adorableness — he sang “I Wanna Be Sedated” with an emergency medicine doctor, for cuteness’s sake — into what can suddenly become technical discussions about how radiation mutates DNA, the effects of sugar on the brain, and, on a Christmas-themed episode, the physics of invisibility. All that, and at least in early episodes, plenty of Ws in place of Rs and Ls.
“Adam is a mawine biowogist, and I like Adam,” Nate says in the second episode of “The Show About Science,” focused on sea creatures. He then goes on to ask Adam: “What do you know about whales?”
The show was born in 2015 when Nate, then 5, told his dad he wanted to start a podcast.
Eric Butkus works in multimedia at the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the Butkuses, who live outside Chicago, had played around with the recording equipment there. (As Eric explained the history of the show in a recent phone call, Nate interrupted with an important update: “By the way, I just got a new fish!”) Eric, a former recording engineer, also had equipment stored away in the closet, so when the show began, he set it up for them in the attic.
Nate’s first guest was his mom (“He said, ‘Who do you want to call?’ and I said, ‘My mom!’” explained Nate, who is an only child) and then he had some family friends on. But since then, he’s spoken with scientists such as Yale ecologist Adam Rosenblatt, University of Michigan biologist Monica Dus, and Harvard Medical School geneticist Clifford Tabin. (“He has a PhD and everything,” Nate said as he introduced Tabin on the show.)
Most of the time, Nate picks a topic and Eric finds a guest, generally a scientist or author. But for one episode, they were contacted to see if they would talk with Huban Gowadia, then the director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. Nate’s response: “Who says no to the government?”
And the guests all seem delighted to be talking with Nate.
“That’s a great question,” they tell him over and over, a bubbliness in their voices. And even when he asks maybe not the most scientifically relevant questions — Do alligators get headaches? And what happens when they get approached by a turtle? — the guests use them as launching pads to discuss other fascinating questions: Do you know how alligators communicate? (Males “bellow” to attract females.) Do you know how strong their bites are? (Perhaps the strongest of any animal that’s ever lived.)
In a way, the basic questions Nate poses poke at the core elements of the subjects that made the scientists fall in love with their fields in the first place.
Nate is “a sort of pure and undiluted incarnation of the awe and wonder that only the luckiest scientists manage to preserve into their professional careers,” Esvelt wrote in an email to STAT. “Listening to him rekindles that sense of astonishment that resides in the heart of everyone [who] ever loved science. Which, because all of us once were young, is just about everyone.”
On their episode, Nate and Esvelt discussed the genome-editing technology CRISPR and whether it could be used to make a creature Nate had designed for a homework assignment, one with flaps of skin on its face, antennae, wings, a squiggly tail, and spikes on its back “like a hedgehog.”
Nate first heard about CRISPR on YouTube, and when asked by STAT why he wanted to do a show about it, Nate first provided a lesson: “First of all, it stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.’” He then added: “I just love clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”
On early episodes, Nate would repeat almost word-for-word what his guest had said, but now — perhaps both as a result of experience and being almost two years older — the show is much more of a conversation. During car rides, Nate and Eric would practice the skill of coming up with follow-up questions.
The show has been successful, Eric said, because talking to a 5- or 6-year-old forces scientists to explain their work in the most basic terms, with a sense of amazement for it all. It turns out that it’s enjoyable and enlightening to listen to those explanations, even as an adult.
“There’s an understanding that happens, even with complicated topics,” Eric said. “And Nate makes it fun. It’s that combination.”
Nate has plenty of ideas for future episodes, including natural disasters and paralysis, and he hopes to one day talk with Bill Nye, and also Michael Phelps about the physics of swimming.
Long term, Nate said he wants to become a biochemist. But in the meantime, he’s enjoying what he’s doing.
At the end of one episode, one guest concluded: “Thanks, Nate, that was fun.” Nate responded: “I bet it was.”