The ‘Radiolab’ Effect

A lot of time is spent on sound. Mr. Abumrad and his fellow producers work in a sonic idiom unlike anything else on the air or on the Web. The ingenuity of a scientist like Diane Deutsch or Steve Strogatz isn’t simply told with an astutely edited interview; it’s formally instantiated in the noises of a more familiar sort of creativity. New voices float in and out of scene, often before they’re identified; accounts of field and lab work are enveloped in a stylized, hyper-real ambience.

“Sound design is what wakes me up in the mornings,” said Mr. Abumrad. “There’s the sense that these ideas are a little bit destabilizing–they bring you to a place where you’re between what you know and what you don’t know. … A little weird, a little alien, definitely seductive and somehow on the edge: The sound is meant to evoke a kind of landscape just beyond the bounds, this sort of dreamy space.”

The result turns the shock and awe of a guest’s discovery into our own, deeply felt if not exactly understood.

“There’ll be strategic silence and then no silences,” said Mr. Krulwich. “There’ll be periods where it’s just back and forth and then periods when you hear someone talking for a long time. All those things are not accidents; there’re about whatever’s being said. And then the way it parses through is–and this is composer’s logic–you keep surprising the audience. Keep a person alert below the level of understanding.”

But the immense skill of these compositions may best be witnessed in the reactions of those decidedly above the level of understanding. Despite the radical cutting and remixing, a half-decade of Ph.D. guests have been almost universally pleased at the aestheticizing their science received on Radiolab.

For Mr. Abumrad, this comes down to his artistry emerging organically from theirs. “Herbert Spencer [the English philosopher] had this idea that if you recorded someone talking and you removed the words, essentially what you have is a series of musical gestures, contours of pitches rising and falling,” he said. “If you take those sounds and amplified it, what you’d have is music. So in essence he’s saying music is contained within human communication. So I think of the sound design as somehow locked within the things we record. It’s just choosing the sounds–amplifying some kernel inside it. Whatever they’re talking about should give birth to the sounds, based on their ideas.”

 

SCIENTISTS AND SCIENTIFIC discovery can materially alter the course of any human life with an authority and rapidity never seen before. At the same time, American secondary-school students have fallen to 29th on a recent OECD survey of scientific literacy in 57 countries. In 1975, the United States was second only to Japan in the ratio of natural science and engineering degrees to the college-age population–a measure of the technical skill level of a workforce. In 2005, it was 21st out of the 23 countries surveyed.

A complex of forces–specialization and success putting ever more distance between scientific truth claims and the critical faculties of non-scientists–threatens the return of a certain kind of Victorian pseudo-reason. Indeed, if it’s Darwin and 600 pages of The Origin of Species that is now remembered for revolutionizing the modern mind, it was then one Herbert Spencer, coiner of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” who made metaphors of the vagaries of natural selection into ideas cultured intellects could wrap themselves around: “social” Darwinism, race and class as subspecies, eugenics and population hygiene.

Is Radiolab an unwitting heir of this tradition? Might unlocking the music within distract from and distort the real meaning of science–which, unlike today’s music or poetry, has the power of life and death and truth? To be sure, WNYC is not alone in the dangers of, in the words of Mr. Abumrad, “dragging scientific ideas kicking and screaming into the narrative world.” (Consider all the journalists who fell in love with Harvard’s Marc Hauser and his evolutionary view of ethics, since found to rely on methodological chicanery and outright fraud.) But as the smartest and supplest of the draggers, Radiolab has an outsize potential to empower or deceive.

Ms. Stanley, the Williamsburg concert planner, has heard enough. She’s decided to become a neuroscientist of music, a quarter-life change that will first mean getting a second bachelor’s degree.

“It will probably be the toughest thing that I will have to face,” she said. “I don’t have any money; I won’t get very much aid; and my family is not entirely on board with my plan. But I know it is what I have to do. … I’m not going to give up on my dreams. I will figure it out.”

editorial@observer.com