The Science Behind Brains On!

By Oscar Wolfe

I love science. So when Molly Bloom brought up quantum entanglement, I knew that it was going to be a great interview. Molly is the host of a science podcast for kids called Brains On! She and the Brains On! team answer an enormous variety of questions put forward by their listeners. The podcast is aimed at 6 to 12 year olds, but I would highly suggest this podcast for science lovers of all ages and anyone who is just curious in general.

I got to go visit Molly at Minnesota Public Radio, where Brains On! is produced. We talked about everything from molecules to mucus.

How did Brains On! start?
It started about five years ago. Marc Sanchez, Sanden Totten and I were just looking for something interesting to do. I had an idea that I wanted to make something for kids. So the three of us brainstormed what we wanted that to sound like. And we knew that kids were really awesome and really smart. And that they got really interested in certain topics. And they had a lot of questions. And they were super curious about stuff. And we knew that we wanted lots of kids’ voices in the show. And we knew that we wanted it to be something that wouldn’t annoy parents. And we knew that we didn’t want to talk down to kids. Those were the main things.

We decided on science as the way to do that because we thought that it would be a cool way to explore the universe and a lot of the questions that people have. We’ve been working on it since then. We made four episodes over the course of a year in our free time. We decided that we liked it enough to make it an actual thing. So we started doing monthly episodes. Then we started doing every other week. We built up enough of an audience that MPR let us start doing it for our jobs, as of January.

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Behind the scenes at Minnesota Public Radio.

There are many audiences that you could have targeted with a science podcast. Why kids?
I think part of it is just my personal interest. I was a summer camp counselor. I taught at a program called Learning Works when I was in high school. In college, I took some education classes. I was always interested in teaching kids and communicating with kids. And I think kids are cool.

Do you have kids?
I do now! I have a one and a half year old. I didn’t when we started this.

What is your favorite part of what you do?
I think working with the kids is super fun. They’re really smart and awesome. I also love learning new things so every episode we work on, I learn things I did not know anything about and then that week I am obsessed with that thing. We did an episode on boogers and I became obsessed with nasal mucus.

I completely know what you mean. I’ll read some random article, like about a new state of matter that’s been discovered, and I’m obsessed with states of matter for the rest of the month!
Yep. I’ll be talking to someone and say, “can I just tell you about nasal mucus?” So that’s the best part—learning random stuff.

Where do you get your topic ideas, do they all come from kids?
We’ve been asking for questions since the start. After our sixth episode we started getting them. The first one was how does paint stick? We did that episode, and it was actually really complicated. It had to do with molecular bonds, so we had to try to explain that.

Have you ever given up on a question?
Only once. That question was why do your fingers get prune-y in the bath? We looked into it, but they don’t really know, and there’s so little there…it didn’t feel like enough.

What do you think makes science so great?
The answers to everyday questions turn out to be incredibly fascinating and there are so many things that are still unanswered, so there’s so much room for discovery. I think it’s cool that it all comes down to molecules and atoms. When you think about that, it all gets into mind-blowing territory.

That’s what I love. I love the extremes.
Have you been reading about the quantum entanglement stuff?

Yeah! It’s so weird!
It’s so cool! Quantum entanglement is the idea that photons that are together can be separated and what you do to one photon can be done to the other, even when they’re apart. A team of researchers just sent a photon to outer space through quantum entanglement!

Were you always into science?
I always liked science. I took AP Chemistry and AP Physics in high school. I took science classes in college even though I didn’t have to, I never thought I would be a scientist or doctor so this is a way to keep that interest going.

What did you study in college?
I was a political science major at Brown University. I chose that precisely because it had the least amount of requirements. I wanted to take a bunch of different classes in a bunch of different departments. I took Spanish. I took Italian. I took West African dance. I took biology. I took astronomy. I was kind of all over the place. Which is why being a public radio person is a good place for me. I’m interested in all sorts of weird things. I also worked at the student radio station when I was at Brown. And that’s what led me to work in public radio.

A lot of kids would be into science, but they think it’s boring in school. How would you change science classes?
I haven’t been in a classroom for a while…are they really that boring?

They just, like, show a Bill Nye video and say here’s a worksheet! I’ve been pretty lucky with my teachers but I know a lot of kids just don’t get into it.
A good way to get interested in science is to think of something you are interested in. it could be how footballs fly through the air. Or it could be how the brain is able to understand language. Basically, anything. We just did an episode on books. So even if you’re most interested in the arts, there”s so much cool stuff on every topic, it’s fun to explore.

It’s time for the rapid fire round. Ready?
Ready!

Favorite element on the periodic table: Oxygen
Favorite ice cream flavor: Nicollet Avenue Pothole at Sebastian Joe’s
Favorite emoji: Poop. Sorry, I have to say it.
Favorite branch of science: Evolutionary biology
Hardest class you ever took: AP Physics
Favorite animal: For some reason elephant popped into my mind so I guess I have to go with that.
Slime or putty: Putty
Favorite scientist: Dorothy Hodgkin
Favorite movie: Singin’ in the Rain
Favorite TV show: RuPaul’s Drag Race
Favorite podcast other than your own: You Must Remember This 
Favorite Brains On! episode: Farts
Edison or Tesla: Tesla

Great answers! Thank you! Last question: What advice would you have for someone who wants to do something great?
Follow your curiosity, wherever it leads you and don’t get discouraged by failing because failing is important. You learn a lot from it.

Be sure to listen to the next episode of Brains On!—I got to weigh in on which is better: deep sea or outer space.

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That Is Great!

A kid's take on stuff that is great.

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