Photo © Desert Owl Productions.
Dos Equis might claim to have The Most Interesting Man in the World, but Geoff Notkin could easily compete for the title. His Instagram bio describes him as a “TV host, producer, Emmy Award winner, author, columnist, adventurer, meteorite specialist, TEDx speaker, Ed Fringe performer, and Asteroid 132904.” Yes, he has an asteroid as a namesake. But even that impressive list does not begin to encompass Notkin’s countless talents, interests and accomplishments.
In an extended interview with Inspiring Figures, Notkin was generously insightful, charmingly witty, and more than a little self-deprecating. Who else could mention the Ramones, potato salad, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the same sentence and have it make perfect sense?
Due to its length, the interview will be presented in parts, culminating with a fascinating look at his childhood idols (you will be surprised), who continues to inspire him today, and breaking news on his latest endeavor, which may be his most ambitious ever.
In Part Two, learn more about how Geoff's science advocacy and STEM outreach have inspired others to pursue their dreams – and inadvertently damaged one woman's carefully tended garden.
Click here to read Part One
Photo © Desert Owl Productions.
In the course of your work, especially on television with Meteorite Men and STEM Journals, as well as your space and science outreach and public appearances, I know you’ve reached millions of people. Do you have an example of some feedback you may have gotten about how you have inspired someone in their life?
There are a lot of examples, actually. I consider it a wonderful privilege to be able to – I think by accident, really – help bring direction or meaning or enthusiasm to somebody else’s life. It’s not really something that I was expecting. There is so much useless television out there that, having been involved in two television series that have influenced and inspired people in a positive way, is an immense honor and a bit shocking.
One example is a lady meteorite scientist from the UK whom I admire very much. She’s a personal friend now, but we met at a spaceflight event five or six years ago. I knew who she was, but I had never met her. We met through mutual friends and I put a little meteorite in her hand and asked, “Have you ever held a meteorite before?” She said that this has profoundly changed her life and that she decided she wanted to be a meteorite scientist. She went back to school and is getting her Ph.D. in meteoritics and holds me responsible for that – in the nicest possible way. It’s a bit humbling to think that somebody would alter the direction of their life because of an interaction with me. There are many examples, but that’s one of my favorites.
I have received emails many times from parents, particularly about Meteorite Men, saying our show was the only thing that would get their kids away from the television. And I thought, “Oh, the irony. A television show that gets kids away from television. How did that happen?” There’s something about Meteorite Men that resonates with kids. It’s amusing, because the demographic they were going for was that coveted late 20s to early 40s male demographic. We had viewers in that demographic, but our biggest block of viewers was kids – and a lot of girls; it’s not just a boy thing.
As kids do, they are able to take something they’ve seen that is inherently extremely difficult, like finding meteorites, and pretend to do it for fun without feeling self-conscious. Kids still have the enthusiasm and the ability to believe, when they are inspired by something, that they can just go out and do that. They haven’t yet gotten to the point where they have unfortunately attracted adults into their lives who say, “Oh, you’re irresponsible,” or, “You could never do that,” or, “It’s too complicated – be realistic.” Kids don’t worry about that! They say, “Let’s go find meteorites,” and they will get their dad’s hammer and a shovel and go out in the garden and start digging. In this wonderfully naïve, optimistic way – I think deep down, they know they’re not really going to find one – but it doesn’t matter. You’re having an adventure, you’re playing. I remember this myself as a kid, having similar experiences, being on holiday and saying, “Let’s go dinosaur hunting,” and we’d go out in the woods and dig up a piece of flint and say, “It looks like a dinosaur bone!” You kid yourself and you know it’s not a dinosaur bone, but it doesn’t really matter because you’re having a pretend adventure that is so realistic, it’s almost as good as the real thing.
It’s an amazing thing to get kids away from the television and get them to go outside and do something. We received many funny emails from parents. I always remember one lady in particular who said, “I’m writing to say thanks to you guys and also to tell you off because I’m super annoyed at you. My two boys love Meteorite Men. They won’t miss it. They’ve got their little vests and they’ve got rock hammers and they go out on expeditions. So, I love you for that and thank you so much. The reason I’m very mad at you guys is that my garden now looks like the surface of the moon.”
These boys had gone out and dug up this poor lady’s garden making pretend meteorite craters and looking for meteorites and doing excavations. I was sympathetic to her, but I was pleased that we had struck a chord with children, still remembering very clearly how I felt as a child when I saw meteorites and looked through a telescope and went to visit the museum to see dinosaurs. Being able to vividly connect to that joy and amazement I felt, and knowing that we were somehow able to ignite that spark of amazement and wonder in children a couple of generations later – it’s about the best thing you can do. I don’t have kids of my own, so I am doubly grateful that I can connect with other kids and inspire them to go on an adventure.
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Photos © Desert Owl Productions.
Many people express concern about today’s youth and their perceived obsession with their phones and lack of interest in STEM learning. Has that been your experience?
I’ve done so many outreach things over the years – schools, universities, museums, spaceflight events – and at some of them you meet these fantastic, super-smart kids that are very well-spoken and gracious. It’s easy for adults to go, “Oh, kids of this generation – they’re so lazy and never do anything and are always on their smartphones.” Yes, maybe you know some children like that. But I have met so many young people that are so smart and they really want to make it; they want to go into spaceflight or robotics.
This is the generation that has grown up with unlimited knowledge available to them – the first generation that has not had to ask their parents about things. When I was a kid, I’d ask my dad why that dog is barking, or why the sky is blue, or how grass grows, or if I could eat a mushroom I found in the woods. You had to ask your parents everything unless you could walk to the library or you had a good teacher. Now, kids don’t have to do that. They can say, “Oh, let me do an internet search for edible mushrooms,” and they can immediately find the information. They have the opportunity to grow up to be very smart and very well-rounded. We just have to be careful that they don’t lose social connectivity and interaction as a result.
I meet these fantastic kids and, in some cases, I give their parents my card. One young man was so amazing and I said, “When you’re 18, call me. We’re going to hire you.” He was so smart. When I started doing the STEM Journals show for Cox Media, one of the ideas in the show was that I would have a young STEM Investigator. STEM Journals was a multidisciplinary show; we did archeology, astronomy, robotics, biomechanics – all these different sciences. I did it for two seasons and we won two Emmys for that show. The episodes are all available online and you can watch them on Cox7.com.
My two directors, David Routt and Frank Kraljik, said, “We want to bring kids on the show and we want you to interact with them. We want them to see that they can be on a show like you. They can be a science presenter if they want to, or they can work with robots or do other types of science. Do you know anyone?” I said yes because of all these kids we had met at science events. I reached out to a few of the parents and asked if they would consider allowing them on the show and most of them said yes. I wish that had happened to me when I was a kid – that I’d met someone at a science fair and they called me up and said, “Do you want to be on my science show?” “Um, yes, please!” These young people were fantastic. I hold that show up as an example to people who say the youth today don’t know anything. Every generation says that. If you think the entire generation is doing that, you haven’t met the same kids I have.
In November 2015, I did a TEDx talk at Institut Le Rosey just outside of Geneva in Switzerland. It’s called, “Meteorites: Life, Death and Hope on Earth,” and you can see it on YouTube. What a challenge it was to do a presentation in 18 minutes, because I have a lot of photos and I like being on stage. I like to think I’m an animated speaker and I love engaging the audience. It’s nothing for me to do an hour and a half talk, but I was really pleased with myself, because my TEDx talk comes in at 17 minutes and 53 seconds. Institut Le Rosey is a gorgeous, state-of-the- art, amazingly modern, technical theater and the crew that ran that event – the camera operators, the stage manager, the sound people, the people that ‘mic’ you – everyone was a student. They were all students in the media program there, some of them as young as 10 years old running cameras. I thought, “That’s how you do it.” You find kids that are interested, give them opportunities, and it is astounding what can happen.
Photo © Desert Owl Productions.
(End, Part 2)
Click here to read Part Three
About Geoffrey Notkin: A television host, professional meteorite hunter, author and photographer, Notkin is president of Aerolite Meteorites, Inc., the world’s largest commercial meteorite company. He starred for three seasons on Science Channel's award-winning TV show Meteorite Men, and hosted the Emmy-winning educational TV series STEM Journals for Cox Media. He has also made documentaries for National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, BBC, History Channel, A&E, and Travel Channel. Notkin has written more than 150 published articles on meteoritics, paleontology, adventure travel, history, and the arts, and is the author of three books. The minor planet 132904, discovered at Mount Palomar, was named "Notkin" and approved by the Minor Planet Center in recognition of Geoff's contributions to science and education.
"METEORITES ARE THE MOST REMARKABLE THINGS on our planet and they are the only things we can own that are not originally from this planet. Meteorites are rocks that have fallen to Earth from outer space, and survived a fiery passage through our atmosphere. They are the remnants of long-dead planets and asteroids, and most originated in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter. Others may have traveled even further, their origins lying in distant, unknown points outside our own solar system. Some meteorites may be all that has survived from the nucleus of an ancient comet. Others, such as carbonaceous chondrites, are believed to contain materials that pre-date our own planet and even the Solar System itself! As such, they are the oldest things any human has ever touched and carry within whispers of an existence so ancient we can barely comprehend it. And now, I invite you to explore our website, and begin your own adventures in the world of meteorites."
— Geoffrey Notkin - President, Aerolite Meteorites, Inc.
If you are interested in learning more about Aerolite Meteorites, click here.
"We did this. We took a stand for science and education, for learning and critical thought, and we altered the experiment. We invite you to be one of the first to become a member and join us in building a great Science, Arts and Space learning institute in Tucson, Arizona. Our mission is to share our passion for science, the arts and space by providing exceptional educational programs, exhibits and resources that are accessible to everyone."
— Geoffrey Notkin - Founder, Science, Arts and Space Institute
If you are interested in learning more about the Science, Arts and Space Institute, click here.