Photograph by Michael Tullberg, Getty Images
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Ron Howard says he wanted to capture the human drama behind scientific breakthroughs. 

Photograph by Michael Tullberg, Getty Images

Ron Howard Grew Up on TV. Now He's Tackling the Science of Aging

He's executive producer of the National Geographic Channel's "Breakthrough" series, exploring scientific fields on the brink of discovery.

The world knows Ron Howard by different roles—as Opie from The Andy Griffith Show, as Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, and as the Oscar-winning director of films like A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13.

Now he's expanding his repertoire of documentary films, as executive producer of Breakthrough, a new National Geographic Channel series about scientific fields that are ripe for big discoveries. Six episodes will run on Sundays from this weekend through December 13, each on a different topic and each from a different high-profile director.

Angela Bassett explores a pending water apocalypse, Akiva Goldsman unpacks the future of energy, and Paul Giamatti probes biotechnology's attempts to build better humans.

Howard, 61, directs an episode on the evolving science of aging and the question of how humans can stay healthier longer. He talked to National Geographic about the research behind aging, his own youth, and how he was a lousy science student.

How did the idea for Breakthrough come about?

Our premise in the series was to take a look at so many of the exciting and fascinating scientific breakthroughs on the near horizon. And from there, to understand who the scientists are who are asking the tough questions and confronting the challenges. What are the controversies around those issues? Why can’t breakthroughs be immediate? That’s the energy we hope to capture.

We’ve chosen directors who have a very humanistic approach to their storytelling style. We’ve been rigorous about trying to be as thorough and real and straightforward about the science as possible. But it’s very much a story of the protagonists who are applying themselves and trying to tackle these problems.

A Beautiful Mind, Cocoon, Apollo 13—what draws you to projects with themes of science?

I have a lot of curiosity about it. I was a terrible science student, so I could never be a scientist; my mind doesn’t work that way. But I’ve learned to love the stories around science, and I have so much respect and fascination for the people who can make discoveries and find applications. There’s a lot of drama there.

How did the topic of aging find you?

I wanted to tackle aging because it’s so universal. It’s a question that’s been asked forever. It begs some philosophical questions as well. We’re all obviously preoccupied with it. Even when we’re young and think it won’t relate to us, there are going to be loved ones and people we care about who are navigating that part of their lives.

Howard discusses his Breakthrough episode on aging, which appealed to him "because it’s so universal."

Anytime you really take a close look at people who are dealing with the aging process, you’re going to have a complicated reaction to what you’re seeing and feeling. If you’re in the middle of it, those emotions are going to be quadrupled.

It’s immediate, it’s relatable, so it’s good human drama. But as a documentary goes, it went in directions I didn’t expect it to.

Like where?

You know, we assume that healthy habits are a good idea, but in and of themselves, they are not the reason we’re going to be active at age 95 or 100. The body works in more complex ways. That one surprised me.

It surprised me that when a group of esteemed researchers and scientists present materials to the FDA, it’s kind of a nail-biting, tightrope-walking exercise. The FDA has to scrutinize these proposals to such a degree that what appears to be a really obvious idea has to be very methodically scrutinized.

It feels frustrating. And yet we all know that we need the FDA to be as rigorous as it can possibly be. That was interesting to see that drama play out.

Can you imagine a future when humans live 200 years or longer?

Yes, but interestingly, the goal isn’t simply to extend life. It’s entirely about the extension of quality time, of years when someone can be highly productive and apply what he or she knows and has learned in a very active way. The research really focuses on delaying the onset of the diseases of aging, like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. That’s the way to enrich lives.

You mean making older people feel young?

Yes. One of the points that one of the researchers makes is that it’s not just a question of people living longer or feeling better longer, but that there’s a productivity value that can be assigned to this. Imagine if the people who have lived and learned still had the vitality to act upon the hard learned lessons, and not just share in a conversation, but lead.

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A scene from the aging episode. "The goal isn’t simply to extend life," Howard says. "It’s entirely about the extension of quality time."

People remember you as the little kid from Happy Days. How do you think you’ve aged?

[Laughs] Well, I still feel young and full of energy, but there are some aches and pains that I don’t recall from ten, twelve years ago. They’re not just sports injuries; there’s something else going on there. I don’t look ahead to the future as a vast endless one. I’ve begun to feel the calendar pages turning.

Ron Howard on celebrating science's quest for the next breakthrough.

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