Professor Ernest Moniz, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, is a professor emeritus of physics at MIT, where he served as the head of the physics department and directed the Bates Linear Accelerator Center. The nuclear physicist was previously an undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration.
If he’s not known as Ernie, than he should be, so we’ve invited him to play a game called “Ernie, meet Bert”: three questions about the taller of the two roommates from Sesame Street.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Now the game where very, very smart people do something very, very dumb – they play Not My Job. Professor Ernest Moniz is a distinguished professor of physics from MIT. He is now the U.S. Secretary of Energy. He is probably the smartest person in President Obama’s Cabinet, but he certainly has the best hair. Secretary Moniz, welcome to WAIT WAIT …DON’T TELL ME.
SECRETARY OF ENERGY ERNEST MONIZ: Pleasure to be here, Peter.
SAGAL: So as the only guy with a doctorate in physics at the White House, the smartest guy there, do you know how to keep people out the front door?
MONIZ: (Laughter) Absolutely. We have a very good security force, I assure you.
SAGAL: You’re going to have to do more than that, I’m afraid.
SAGAL: You don’t work at the White House, right? You haven’t – maybe haven’t noticed the people wandering in off the street.
MONIZ: Well, I used to work at the White House back in the President Clinton years.
SAGAL: Oh really? Oh, I didn’t realize that. So you’re a political veteran?
MONIZ: I’ve gone in and out from academia to government.
SAGAL: So have a lot of other people, turns out.
SAGAL: We’ll leave that alone there. So I want to get – I want to get to this, the most important topic. You – and I think this is true more than any other political figure today – you’re known for your hair. Could you describe your hair to the audience, ’cause I’m sad they cannot see you.
MONIZ: Well, I’m afraid it’s been described for me, for example, on the blogosphere, 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: 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, a little bit curly.
SAGAL: When did you acquire this hair? Well, I mean, obviously.
CHARLIE PIERCE: What the Hell?
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 East Coast. I was a graduate student at Stanford.
SAGAL: Rights. So you went out to Stanford in the ’70s.
MONIZ: In the ’70s.
SAGAL: In the ’70s. And so it is a hairstyle that is redolent of the 1970s.
PIERCE: It’s kind of redolent of all the seventies – the 1870s, the 1770s.
SAGAL: Pretty much.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: A lot of people came away from the seventies 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 the occasional picture, of course.
SAGAL: I understand, I understand. Are you – I mean – are you a self-described nerd? Are you somebody you would call yourself a nerd?
MONIZ: No I would not, actually.
MONIZ: Even though I came from MIT, kind of known as nerdville, right?
SAGAL: Are you a nerd hero? I mean, 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 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: Be quite serious about it, a number of young scientists around the country considered 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. There is in fact – there is a line of succession that’s by office. And we know, obviously, the president, then the vice president, then the 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.
PIERCE: 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? I thought it was a value judgment.
SAGAL: I thought housing – we need housing more than we need energy, so energy goes beneath housing. Do you oversee all things energy? Do you have like a favorite energy drink?
MONIZ: I have a perhaps favorite energy technology, which is solar energy, which I think will be very, very big as we go forward.
SAGAL: Really? 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.
Well, Secretary Moniz, we’re delighted to have you with us and we’re asking you here to play game we’re calling…
BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: Ernie, meet Bert.
SAGAL: So you’re Ernie. Right? That’s what you like people to call you. 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, who is Secretary Moniz playing for?
KURTIS: Jean Klurfeld of Ossining, New York.
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.
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, I’m trying to apply some degree of rationality. Let me choose number one.
SAGAL: You choose number one? Eating Cheez Doodles and watching football?
SAGAL: No, it was actually serenading a woman with the song, “I Want To Hold Your Ear.” Here is Bert singing to his lady love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR EAR”)
BERT: (Singing) Oh, I want to hold your ear, baby, wanna hold it near. Baby, wanna 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: All right, you still have two more chances 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. I guess as a physicist, I will go with the high energy particles.
SAGAL: And you would be correct.
SOUNDBITE OF BELL
SAGAL: They’re neutrinos. 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 just last week in Venice to the acclaimed civil rights lawyer he married, one of the guests of honor was Bert?
SAGAL: So is that your choice, Secretary Moniz?
MONIZ: Well, you’re suggesting I change it.
MONIZ: I’ll stick with it.
SAGAL: You’re going to stick with it?
SAGAL: No, the answer was C, declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Let me explain.
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.
Bill, how did Secretary Moniz do on our show?
KURTIS: Well, the secretary got one out of three, 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RUBBER DUCKY”)
ERNIE: (Singing) Rubber ducky, you’re the one. You make bath time lots of fun. Rubber ducky I’m awfully fond of you.
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