I'm Chels. I blog about science, art, tennis, and my adventures in journalism. Officially, I'm a Science Writer at Brookhaven National Lab and I blog for them, too. Unofficially, I'm pretty awesome.

Or, you know, owsome.

flavors.me | burning questions owsome mosaic | twitter | instagram psssst: say hello
Posts tagged radiolab

The Science of Storytelling: The Tin House interview with the Radiolab guys 

This is maybe the best interview I’ve read with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich about Radiolab. I love the show, its innovation, the way they’re using it to experiment with public radio, and the state of thoughtfulness and wonder it always leaves me in. These interviews (cut together, very much like an episode of the show) reveal a lot about how Jad and Robert create the magic that is Radiolab. 

Jad says: In every piece, we start by mystifying something. You want to have this gunshot of amazement at the top of every story. Then you proceed to demystify it. Then you remystify it at the end in a new way. If I could distill every story I tell to those three moves, I’d be happy. You begin with sort of simple, cheap wonder, you go to science—to someone who can analyze the underlying assumptions—then you put it back together in a new way, but where you can still stand in amazement.” 

There’s a lot that goes into the production, though. I’ve always wondered how much of the discussion was acting and how much of it was genuine conversation. Jad says it’s a little bit of both: 

Most of the time, it’s genuine that one of us does know more than the other about a particular topic we’re covering. Oftentimes, I’ll intentionally keep Robert in the dark. It’s often the case that we’ll just start rolling tape and I’ll explain a concept to him.

He also explains that he and Robert have different approaches to the material. I think in this case, I tend to be a more Krulwich-style storyteller, but I like that they each have an approach that complements the other: 

It’s an easier place to start, for me, when you have a great story that seems pregnant with something. Then I can invite a smarty to talk about neuroscience or whatever. That’s easier for me to conceptualize, but that’s not always how we start. I know Robert often works the other way. He’ll have a broad concept or a new bit of research that will lead him to go look for the story. The show really evolved in that juxtaposition. 

It’s the juxtapositions that really make Radiolab for me. The philosophical butting up against science, the way they weave stories of people and experiments together into one narrative. Jad says that can be the hardest part (I’m not surprised):

Those transitions are the things we’ll do thirty takes of over the course of a production cycle, just to make sure we get them right. We’re always trying to figure out the most plainspoken but genuine way of making a connection. It’s really hard sometimes, figuring out what the apple has to say to the orange. 

But ultimately it’s the apples and oranges of Robert and Jad that make it entertaining. I love it when they’re coming at something from completely different angles, but they end up in a similar place, something like a truce based in amazement at whatever they’re exploring. Robert, I think, says it best when he talk about what it is in their chemistry that is so inviting:

The whisper of affection and curiosity and play—mostly play—will get a lot of people into the tent.

I know it seems like I must have quoted the whole piece, but there’s so much more. If you’re interested in science or radio or reading about two of the most creative journalists out there, go have a look. 

The Turing Problem  |  Radiolab

I know this Turing piece is supposed to blow me away because of how amazing Alan Turing was (and he certainly is fascinating), but the thing that made me actually stop and rewind to hear it again was this fact:

Computer used to mean a person. Someone who computes.

Of course, there was a time when people couldn’t conceive of a machine that could do several tasks at once, or one that could connect to others all over the world without so much as a wire. It’s an interesting look at the human ego to see the way that people used to think of machines as things we manipulated, simply things that humans control. But Turing knew that machines could “think”. And I must say that my approach to computers has always taken Turing’s ideas into account without me ever having known this. 

The "Radiolab Effect" . . . Have You Felt It? 


Alexis Madrigal writes at The Atlantic:

… our cultural expectations of radio — funneled through different technological listening devices — are changing. It may be broadcast over traditional airwaves, but it’s webby. It feels interactive and interrogative rather than narrowly investigative. Abumrad and Krulwich aren’t coming from on high, but right there with the listener adventuring through the story. 

These guys, and their whole team, have changed the way I and others strive to tell science stories. The sky’s the limit, and I can’t wait to explore what’s coming.

I love that phrase “adventuring through the story”. That’s what’s so great about Jad and Robert. They’re really on a curiosity adventure and you’re along for the ride. You don’t just get to hear the polished answers, you get to come along for the formation of questions too. They’re true storytellers, and they’re the best of their kind. I know their work has influenced mine, and I can only hope this Radiolab Effect ripples through more and more of the productions I read, watch, or listen to. 

(via npr)

This is one of my favorite Radiolab shorts in a while (probably because I’m fascinated by planes and would love to fly one someday). It tells the story of one of aviation’s long-forgotten stars, Lincoln Beachey, who was a trick flyer back at the turn of the last century. Though most people have never heard of him, his legend lives on in a jump-rope song. 

Lincoln Beachey thought it was a dream
To go up to heaven in a flying machine
The machine broke down
And down he fell
He thought he’d go to heaven but he went to…

The story of his daredevil death is absolutely horrifying/amazing. 

Radiolab: Desperately Seeking Symmetry 

I finally got around to listening to this, and you guys, this is one cool world we live in. My favorite part was summed up in this quote: “Life, my friend, is left-handed.”

If you look at the molecules that make up stuff like rocks or other inanimate objects, you will see some that point one way and some that point another, a 50/50 mix of left- and right-handed molecules. But look at the proteins of living things, from leaves to whales to humans, and every single one is left-handed. That’s interesting, but here’s the cool part. 

Scientists can manufacture mirror molecules — right-handers — which lead to some crazy outcomes: 

“If you take the atoms which built caraway seeds – which is the spice they use in Rye bread – take a mirror image of them, suddenly you get something that tastes of spearmint. It’s what’s put on Wrigley spearmint gum.”

WHAT?! How cool is that? I wonder what other properties right-handed molecules could have? Like, what about the milk they mention? Would mirror milk molecules be like grape juice? I wonder…