If Dan Riskin isn’t the smartest person on Canadian television, then he’s certainly the most educated. The Edmonton native brings three degrees to his new duties as co-host of the Discovery Channel’s science flagship series Daily Planet. Specifically, Riskin holds a BSc in zoology from the University of Alberta, a master’s degree in biology from York University and a PhD in zoology from Cornell University.
Riskin’s interest in science began with studying bats in high school. Years in academia led to his hosting the science programs Evolve, Monsters Inside Me and Curiosity: The Questions of Life. In recent years, he has also established his reputation with regular appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. As Jay Ingram’s replacement on Daily Planet, Riskin hopes to spread the science word while sharing hosting duties with Ziya Tong. He spoke to us last week in Toronto.
Was it ever your intention to become a TV host?
Not really. I thought I was on a traditional career path of science. I had just obtained a tenure track position in the States, so I figured I’d do research and learn more about bats and biology and wherever possible I’d try to get young people interested in science. But hosting Daily Planet is just a huge opportunity. I still intend to collaborate with people and publish papers, but now I’m going to share my passion for science with viewers every day on television.
How did you first become interested in bats?
When I was in high school, I read a really well-written book about bats by a man called Brock Fenton, who was a professor at York University. These are neat animals, they surprise you, they do funny things. For a high-school kid, it really hit the mark. A few years later, I was lucky enough to do my master’s degree with Brock Fenton at York.
Didn’t your bat research lead to you being interviewed on Daily Planet a few years ago?
I put vampire bats on a treadmill and videotaped them with a high-speed camera. I found out that vampire bats have a running gait that no other bat has. That was my big finding. It was perfect Daily Planet material and they interviewed me at the time. I had no idea that a few years later I’d be sitting in the co-host chair.
What launched your career as a TV science guy?
A few years ago, I was recommended to a production company making a show called Evolve. They were looking for someone who was enthusiastic about science and who didn’t look old. The same company made the show Monsters Inside Me. I got to learn a lot about parasites in the making of that show, which was very rewarding for me.
How important is it to simplify science matters for viewers?
That’s something I think a lot about. It’s not always about getting somebody to understand a complicated concept. The TV medium doesn’t always lend itself to allowing you to do that. It’s more about getting people to understand why it’s a neat discussion or discovery. It’s a thrill sharing science with people. I see the show as a really elaborate teaching gig.
Have you taken any field trips yet?
We went to Guben, Germany, to look at the process where dead bodies are plastinated for the exhibit Body Worlds. The technology was created by a German man with a plastinarium in Guben. Every day, dead bodies arrive and he turns them into art. We also went to China for a segment on a bat researcher making discoveries on how echo location works and how the faces of bats are built to receive those echoes. Imagine the bat’s face as a satellite dish.
You’ve worked the talk-show circuit before. Does that feel odd for a man of science?
It’s a total trip. You go from being a guy in a lab working on obscure projects about how bat wings bend, and nobody cares what you’re doing, and a few months later, you’re on Jay Leno, sitting next to Cameron Diaz, trying to put leeches on her. What happened here?
What with the success of The Big Bang Theory and other shows, is this the golden age of the scientist?
It does seem the public is more receptive to science these days. The way the Internet and multimedia and Twitter and everything are coming together, it’s getting easier to share information, which probably makes the world a better place. And people are more receptive to science because everybody is using technology a lot more than they were 20 years ago. So maybe it is a good time to be a geek.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Daily Planet returns on Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. on Discovery Channel.