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Not My Job: Secretary Of Energy Ernest Moniz Gets Quizzed On Bert

BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: It's only fitting that we end our show with the chief scientist of the United States, Dr. Ernest Moniz, the secretary of science things.


Actually, he's the secretary of energy, and he joined us in October of last year, right after a string of Secret Service failures at the White House. But we started with a much more important topic.


SAGAL: Could you describe your hair to the audience 'cause I'm sad they cannot see you.

ERNEST MONIZ: Well, I'm afraid it's been described for me, for example, on the blogosphere as the best hair in the Cabinet since 1794.


MONIZ: I've been compared with the psychotic assassin in "No Country For Old Men," the Javier Bardem figure.

SAGAL: Yeah. So your hair is sort of long and lush. And it goes down almost to your shoulders. Is that right?

MONIZ: It kind of flows and a little bit curly.

SAGAL: When did you acquire this hair? Well, I mean, obviously...



SAGAL: Yeah, I'm desperate to know where I can get some. No, I mean - what I mean to say is when did you first adopt this hairstyle is what I meant to say.

MONIZ: I - actually, it was when I went to California. That's what happens when you go to California from the - from the East Coast. I was a graduate student at Stanford.

SAGAL: Right. So you went out to Stanford in the...

MONIZ: In the '70s.

SAGAL: The '70s. And so it is - it is a hairstyle that is redolent of the 1970s.

PIERCE: It's kind of redolent of all the '70s - the 1870s, the 1770s.

SAGAL: Pretty much.


PAULA POUNDSTONE: A lot of people came away from the '70s with a mullet, sir. So I think you've made the right choice.


SAGAL: I wanted to ask you - as someone who has to translate science to the layperson, to congressmen in particular - what is it like to explain, say, climate change, right, to someone who is really dumb?


MONIZ: I can assure you, I have some excellent conversations with members of Congress, both parties, both chambers. And frankly, I believe the argument is largely over as to whether we need to address climate change. We have to decide together how we're going to do it.

POUNDSTONE: What do you do on a daily basis when you're the secretary of energy? Does it have anything to do with riding a bike?


MONIZ: Well, we do encourage, of course, efficient transportation. We have many missions. Our big one, of course, right now is supporting the president's initiative on climate change, going to clean energy. But I might also add the Department of Energy has a second side, which goes back literally to World War II in terms of managing our nuclear weapons and trying to free the world of dangerous materials.

SAGAL: Do you ever get to take one home to impress your wife?

MONIZ: No, just - just the occasional picture, of course.

SAGAL: I understand, I understand. Are you - I mean - you - are you a self-described nerd? Are you somebody who would call yourself a nerd?

MONIZ: No, I would not, actually.

SAGAL: Really, you wouldn't?

MONIZ: Even though I came from MIT, kind of known as Nerdville, right?

SAGAL: Are you a nerd hero? I mean, do, like - do people come up and admire you because of your scientific achievements?

MONIZ: Yes, that often happens, frankly. And by the way, I must say the...


POUNDSTONE: Explain to me the last time that happened...


POUNDSTONE: ...Where you were somewhere, sir - you were out, just at a 7-11 or something, and someone came up with admiration over your scientific achievements.

MONIZ: I would say yesterday.

SAGAL: It happened yesterday.




SAGAL: Take that, Poundstone.


SAGAL: So - so all right. So what happened? I want to hear about this. I want to hear about the nerd groupie who came up to you yesterday. What happened?

MONIZ: To be quite serious about it, the - a number of young scientists around the country consider the pathway I've taken one that inspires them. And it's really a pleasure to be able to hopefully encourage these young students.

SAGAL: When we found out we were going to be honored to have you on the show, the first thing we did is we looked up where you are on the line of succession. That's by office, and we know, obviously...

MONIZ: Correct.

SAGAL: The president, then the vice president, then speaker of the house, then the president pro tempore of the Senate. And you go all the way down the list. You're third to last, we found out.


SAGAL: It's you. It's Arne Duncan.

PIERCE: And Veterans Affairs, right?

SAGAL: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. And then it's the guy who's guarding the front door at the White House. But he's not on the list anymore.


SAGAL: That seems insulting. The secretary of energy is important. Energy's hugely important...

PIERCE: Well, it goes by the creation - the date of the creation of the cabinet department, I believe.

MONIZ: Right, exactly.

SAGAL: Oh, is that how it works?

POUNDSTONE: Oh, is that true? Oh.


SAGAL: I thought - I thought it was a value judgment.



SAGAL: I thought housing - we need housing more than we need energy, so energy goes beneath housing or something like that. Do you oversee all things energy? Do you have, like, a favorite energy drink?


MONIZ: I have a, perhaps, favorite energy technology, which is - which is solar energy, which I think will be very, very big as we go forward.

SAGAL: Really?


SAGAL: Nice pivot on that one, sir.


SAGAL: We were going to get you to wade into that controversial issue of Gatorade versus Powerade, but you went right to your preferred topic. You are a practiced politician. I admire that.


SAGAL: Well, Secretary Moniz, we're delighted to have you with us. And we are asking you here to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: Ernie, Meet Bert.


SAGAL: So you're Ernie, right? That's what you like people to call you.


SAGAL: So how much do you know about Bert? We're going to ask you three questions about the "Sesame Street" character.


SAGAL: Get two right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail. Bill - Bill, who is Secretary Moniz playing for?

KURTIS: Jean Klurfeld of Ossining, N.Y.

SAGAL: Now, I just wanted to point out that your predecessor in the job, Dr. Steven Chu, came on the show about four years ago, soon after his appointment, and lost big time. He got one right.

PIERCE: And the Nobel Committee came back and took his award away.

SAGAL: They did. Yeah.

PIERCE: They ripped off his epaulettes, broke his sword over his knee. It was terrible.

SAGAL: I just want to set that mark right there for you. All right...


SAGAL: ...You ready to do this?

MONIZ: I'm ready.

SAGAL: Ever since Bert and Ernie were introduced on "Sesame Street" as roommates who shared a bedroom, they have been supposed of being gay partners - but not so. In fact, the makers of "Sesame Street" early on tried to show that Bert was happily heterosexual by showing him doing what? A, eating Cheez Doodles and watching football until he falls asleep on the couch; B, serenading a woman with the song, "I Want To Hold Your Ear;" or C, watching Ms. Piggy go by and saying, nice hams?


MONIZ: Well, again, trying to apply some degree of rationality, let me choose number one.

SAGAL: You choose number one?

MONIZ: Watching football.

SAGAL: Eating Cheez Doodles and watching football?

MONIZ: Right.

SAGAL: No, it was actually serenading a woman with the song, "I Want To Hold Your Ear."

MONIZ: (Laughter).

SAGAL: Here is Bert singing to his lady love.


BERT: (Singing) Oh, I want to hold your ear, baby, want to hold it near. Baby, want to hold your ear until you hear that I love you.


PIERCE: Good Lord.

SAGAL: I realize, of course...

FAITH SALIE: And that makes him straight?

SAGAL: Oh, yeah.


SAGAL: All right, you still have two more chances...

MONIZ: Well, all right.

SAGAL: ...To outdo Secretary Chu. Bert and Ernie have had many things named after them in the many years they've been around, including which of these? A, a pair of high-energy particles from outside of the galaxy; B, the fists of Ultimate Fighting champion Demetrious Johnson - Bert and Ernie; or C, two gay penguins at the Pittsburgh Zoo?

MONIZ: (Laughter) Another difficult question.

SAGAL: Yeah.

POUNDSTONE: (Laughter).

MONIZ: I guess as a physicist, I will go with the high-energy particles.

SAGAL: And you would be correct.


POUNDSTONE: All right.

SAGAL: They're neutrinos.

SALIE: That's great.


SAGAL: They were discovered and then named Bert and Ernie by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. OK, Secretary Moniz, here is your last question. Get this one right, you win. Bert has played a role in all kinds of dramas all over the world. He's been everywhere. He's done everything. In fact, he was once seen A, breaking into the White House; B, attending George Clooney's wedding; or C, declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden?

MONIZ: Well, I think I will go with George Clooney.

SAGAL: You're going to go with George Clooney? You believe that at George Clooney's wedding...


SAGAL: ...In Venice to the acclaimed civil rights lawyer he married...


SAGAL: ...One of the guests of honor was Bert?


SAGAL: So is that your choice, Secretary Moniz?

MONIZ: Well, you're suggesting I change it, but I'll...

SAGAL: I'm...


MONIZ: I'll stick with it.

SAGAL: You're going to stick with it?

MONIZ: Yeah.

SAGAL: No, the answer was C, declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Let me explain.

MONIZ: Really?


SAGAL: Back around 2000-2001, some wag put up a site called Evil Bert, depicting Bert from "Sesame Street" doing evil things, including being dressed as Mujahideen next to Osama bin Laden. And some protesters who were protesting in favor of Osama in Afghanistan, printed out these pictures of Osama, not noticing that there was a bearded, evil-looking Bert next to him.


SAGAL: So, in fact, Bert from "Sesame Street" appeared multiple times at these pro-Osama protests in Afghanistan.


SAGAL: Bill, how did Secretary Moniz do on our show?

KURTIS: Well, the secretary got 1 out of 3, which is exactly what the previous secretary got. So you're in very good company.

SAGAL: You can learn more about what Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz is up to at energy.gov. They've got a lot of cool things going on. Secretary Ernest Moniz, thank you so much for joining us here on WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME.


SAGAL: An honor to talk to you.

MONIZ: Thanks very, very much, sir.

SAGAL: Support for NPR comes from NPR member stations and from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, working to improve the quality of peoples' lives by supporting the performing arts, the environment, medical research and child well-being. Information is available at ddcf.org. The William T. Grant Foundation, supporting research to improve the lives of young people from diverse backgrounds and ensure that they reach their fullest potential. More information is available at wtgrantfoundation.org. Lumber Liquidators, a proud sponsor of NPR, offering more than 400 styles, including hardwood, bamboo, laminate and vinyl. With flooring specialists in hundreds of stores nationwide. More at lumber liquidators.com or 1-800-HARD-WOOD. And the Annie E. Casey Foundation, with more than 25 years of KIDS COUNT data on the well-being of America's children. Providing access to national and local information, as well as state rankings. Learn more at datacenter.kidscount.org. WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME is a production of NPR and WBEZ Chicago in association with Urgent Hair Care productions, Doug Berman, benevolent overlord. B.J. Leiderman composed our theme. Thanks to all of the panelists you heard, all our guests, our listener contestants and of course, our scorekeeper emeritus, Carl Kasell, still our only prize. I'm Peter Sagal, and we'll see you next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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