The ‘Radiolab’ Effect

“THIS SHOW IS a conversation between science and mystery,” Mr Abumrad said. “You’re right at the edge of what the science can tell you. Which to me is as much about, like, magical thinking and weirdness and poetry as the science itself.”

In the studio one afternoon this fall, Professor Marcello Gleiser’s thinking, however magical, was resisting an easy transition to poetry.

The interview, on the subject of symmetry, became a precisely orchestrated witness interrogation. Mr. Abumrad played the enthused and slightly callow investigator, quick to express wonder and eager to propel the discussion forward in intuitive hops. (“So, you’re a self-hating physicist, then?”) This made Mr. Krulwich a Scully to the younger man’s Mulder: Soberly and systematically hitting the mileposts of Mr. Gleiser’s latest book, he outpaced the author himself, once prompting his partner to interject, “That’s interesting, but I want him to say it.”

The prepared-cop-winging-it-cop routine has nothing to do with the hosts’ personalities off the air–where Mr. Abumrad brims with insights on “departicularization” and the “liminal”–and just barely resembles their personas on it. But this unseen Radiolab–this play at getting “him to say it” himself–is the key to everything. At base, Mr. Gleiser’s book, A Tear at the Edge of Creation, argues that the superstrings, unified fields and theories of everything he and his fellow cosmologists have spent decades pursuing amount to crypto-monotheism. It is a story of his conversion to heresy. In the professor’s live recounting, it’s also, to borrow the thermodynamic term, a hot mess–ponderous, imprecise and more than a little bit silly.

The nadir of his “radical new vision for life in an imperfect universe” came with a left-field anecdote: He’s used software that doubles either the left or right side of his face to achieve perfect symmetry, and the results were unsettling. Thus our sense of selves, and human attractiveness, rests on minute imperfections. But, Mr. Krulwich protests, haven’t numerous studies shown that we find the most symmetrical faces the most beautiful? This impasse was never really settled.    

Later in the afternoon, Messrs. Krulwich and Abumrad would do another interview, with the Cornell mathematician Steve Strogatz–like Oliver Sacks and Brian Greene, a regular guest, who knows the best way to explain the prisoner’s dilemma amusingly and economically for NPR. But it’s the relative mass-media virgins like Mr. Gleiser that really demonstrate the ambition and grandeur of Radiolab‘s project. When and if the 80-minute Gleiser conversation sees the light of day–a Symmetry/Asymmetry episode is planned for the winter–it will be pristine, flattering and likely three or four minutes at the longest. With a total staff of eight (including hosts and interns), Radiolab‘s bespoke, microbrewed construction may be what really sets it apart: Episodes take months, sometimes years, to come off, and there are perhaps a half-dozen active topics in play at any time.