You’re Listening to Radio Lab—Or You Should Be

7/11/08Follow @wroush

I drove from Boston to northern Michigan last weekend to hang out with my parents over the 4th of July. It’s a 15-hour trek—plus another two or three hours if you forget your passport and you have to go south around Lake Erie instead of straight through Canada. But I didn’t mind the drive, because I had an iPod full of Radio Lab podcasts to catch up on.

Radio Lab, a production of New York’s flagship NPR station, WNYC, isn’t just the best science and technology show on public radio. I think it’s a contender for the best contemporary radio show, period. I discovered it in 2006, when it was already in its second season. But thankfully, MP3s are available at iTunes and at the show’s website, and because there are only five new episodes per year, I had plenty time in the car to get through the show’s entire third and fourth seasons.

Jad Abumrad, Host/producer of WNYC\'s Radio LabIf you asked me to say what Radio Lab is about in one word, I would say “perception.” Jad Abumrad, the show’s lively host and producer, is the son of an endocrine surgeon and a research biologist, a graduate of the music and creative writing programs at Oberlin College, and a longtime radio journalist. Clearly, the only fate open to a person with a background this eclectic is to invent new interviewing, storytelling, and sound-editing techniques to explore big questions at the boundary of neuroscience, evolution, and philosophy—questions like, Where’s the part of my brain that’s me? Why do some songs get stuck in my head? Where does guilt come from? What makes placebos work so well? Can we erase memories? Why do we find zoos so fascinating? Why are people who deceive themselves more successful than those who don’t? Why do we sleep/dream/laugh/lie/age/die?

In the end, all of these questions are about how we see the world. And it doesn’t take a PhD to ask them—just a notebook or a microphone. Abumrad has said in interviews that he only became interested in science a few years ago, and that he often embarks on making an episode with only a “Time magazine-level” understanding of his subject matter. I think that’s actually one of the show’s main strengths. If you’ve studied science too long, or spent too much time around scientists, you lose the ability—or maybe just the courage—to ask big, silly, impertinent questions.

Part of the trademark Radio Lab approach developed by Abumrad and his jovial and mischievous co-host, ABC science correspondent (and fellow Oberlin alum) Robert Krulwich, is to stumble around behind a scientist in his or her lab, posing questions a third-grader might ask, professing astonishment and disbelief at the answers, and nagging for clarifications and simplifying analogies. Of course, it’s all an act—Abumrad and Krulwich know exactly what they’re doing as they maneuver scientists into dropping their professional reserve and showing their unedited, human passion for their subjects.

One of those passionate researchers is Diana Deutsch, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the psychology of music. Deutsch, whose lilting Oxford-accented voice is somehow both playful and extremely serious, has uncovered some very strange things about the sounds of language by studying looped recordings of human speech. It turns out that certain phrases, if you listen to them over and over, start to sound like music, complete with rhythm and melody—which raises some big questions about what music really is, in neurological and cultural-linguistic terms.

Radio Lab LogoIs it possible, for example, that children who grow up speaking tone-based languages like Mandarin are better equipped to become great musicians (thus accounting for the frequency of Chinese violin prodigies)? While investigating such ideas, Abumrad and his colleagues deftly use digital sound editing, actual music, and even, from time to time, hired singers and actors to raise material like Deutsch’s tape loops to the level of performance art. If you just listen to the first few minutes of the Season 2 episode “Musical Language,” you’ll understand what the heck I’m talking about.

Two more of the show’s unofficial scientists-in-residence are neurologist Oliver Sacks, surely one of the three or four best physicians writing in English today (along with Sherwin Nuland, Atul Gawande, and Abraham Verghese), and theoretical physicist Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe and surely the world’s most understandable string theorist. These folks pop in every so often to share earth-shattering yet deadpan observations—like this one from Greene, in a Season 1 episode called “Beyond Time“: “In quantum theory, some have suggested the so-called ‘many worlds’ interpretation—that the universe is not a single entity, that there are many universes and each of the choices you make is borne out in one of these copies…The fellas that believe this say, ‘I chose vanilla [ice cream] in this world but there’s another version of me that’s now eating chocolate.’”

As you listen to the show over time, you start to feel toward these guests as you might toward that wonderful, itinerant aunt or uncle who’s always stopping by between their European lecture tour and their Australian scuba safari, just long enough to take you to the planetarium and drop off their latest manuscript on neurotransmitters and quantum teleportation at the publisher’s office. The genius of Radio Lab is that Abumrad and Krulwich play the role of the wide-eyed nephew/niece so convincingly while—behind the curtain—they’re also operating the whole glorious Wurlitzer.

A few months ago, Jesse Thorn, the host of another very good public radio show called The Sound of Young America (which happens to share Radio Lab‘s time slot on WNYC), interviewed Abumrad and Krulwich about their work. Abumrad said part of the show’s goal is to liberate science from the textbooks and the gray newspaper columns. “Scientists are often talked about as people who know stuff—as, like, esteemed elders who have some knowledge to bestow upon us unwashed masses,” Abumrad said. “When really they are just people who are passionate about what they do. And they stay up really late doing these experiments, 99 percent of which don’t work, and they are as crazy driven as the rest of us are. It’s about putting your finger on the person, the humanity.”

That’s a great thing for public radio to do—and I can’t wait to hear how Radio Lab keeps doing it.

You can subscribe to World Wide Wade via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.