Melissa Stanley went to school for music–or rather, Music Industry. The 26-year-old recalls “taking maybe one physics class in college, and that was it” for her formal science education. After graduation, she became a director of A&R and booking at Jezebel Music, a concert-promotion outfit for unsigned acts in Williamsburg. Then, at the office sometime in 2007, things changed. “One day,” she said, “we just got tired of all of the music that we had on our computers, so I turned on WNYC.” The program on the air was Radiolab.
“I can’t remember if they played the entire ‘Musical Language’ episode, or if it was just one segment … but my coworker and I were just in awe. I think that was the turning point for me. Both of us became WNYC members that day, and I ordered both of Diana Deutsch’s CDs, and I eventually found a copy of her textbook, The Psychology of Music.”
Dr. Deutsch, a UC San Diego professor who’s pioneered research into cross-cultural music perception and cognition and was on the air that day, is the sort of slightly whimsical academic–biostatisticians of bee colonies; pathologists in possession of famous historical tumors–Radiolab has adopted as its own. Yet for listeners like Ms. Stanley, secondhand access to the whimsy of the lab comes twinged with regret about the limits of the life they’ve chosen.
“I was always obsessed with music, but at 17 years old I had no idea that people were even studying the science behind music, or the way it affects people. … When I heard the ‘Musical Language’ episode, it just opened up my eyes to this whole other world behind musicality. I began to read more and more about it. If my teachers had been as engaging as [Radiolab hosts] Jad [Abumrad] and Robert [Krulwich], I would probably have a completely different life right now.”
Hoping eventually to make that alternate, scientific life happen, Ms. Stanley is in the meantime working on a play, with her friend and fellow diehard Erin Smith, based on research recounted in the Radiolab episode “Stress.”
The Radiolab effect on Gen-Y cultural production is widespread. In Edinburgh, Scotland, Jez Burrows, a 24-year-old designer and illustrator, was inspired to organize a collective art project called “In Radiolab We Trust,” proceeds from which went to WNYC.
“I became very conscious,” Mr. Burrows said, “that this was a program I was getting a huge amount out of–mentally, creatively–but I was yet to contribute anything in return. At the same time, I was aware of a lot of designers and illustrators who were fans. … So I asked four friends to create a piece of artwork inspired by an episode of their choosing–I provided one, too–and then sold them online.”
The first printing, of 50 sets, was gone within a day, and the images soon found their way onto official tote bags and T-shirts. A new set of five is planned for release this month–courtesy of five new artists.
“It’s funny,” Mr. Burrows said of his success drawing artists as well as buyers. “The vast majority of the artists I know seem to spend a lot of time listening to podcasts. It used to be This American Life that was the touchstone, but more and more I’m hearing Radiolab.”
In August, it was likewise Radiolab–and not This American Life–heard over the radio as Mary-Louis Parker tossed a croquet mallet (and murder weapon) out her car window on the season premiere of Weeds.
A September episode of Radiolab, “Falling,” nicely captures the show’s aesthetic appeal, and its appeal to the aesthete. The episode comes in the form of eight rapid-fire, free-associational segments: A neuroscientist has subjects free-fall 150 feet into a circus net to study their sensation of “slowing” time. A girl describes falling in, and out of, love with a prosopagnosic (face-blind) boy. Researchers analyze police reports of cats falling 8 or 10 stories and landing on their feet. Physicists struggle to answer why we fall, and fall more often as we age. The story of the first woman to clear Niagara Falls in a barrel. An evolutionary explanation for hypnic jerks. Walking as a form of controlled falling. What it feels like to fall in a black hole.
As you’d imagine, smiles ensue. But Radiolab is more than just a post-ironic, earnestly clever refashioning of findings for the literate and curious not apt to subscribe to Nature or The Lancet. What seems like dumbing-down harbors revelation: To listen to enough Radiolab is to see that scientists haven’t simply replaced the theologians, the metaphysicians and the social critics as posers and answerers of the biggest questions. They’ve also become, in a time of gene-splicing and hadron-colliding and psychopharmacology, our true avatars of creative expression, the last radical artists left.
RADIOLAB IS A program only ostensibly about science and scientists. At a deeper level, its interest is in limning the full varieties of human wonder, while serving as a real-time chronicle of the triumph of Science.
“To tell you the truth, I hate science,” Mr. Abumrad said. “The rigor you have to go through to be a scientist would drive me crazy.”
When he started Radiolab in 2002, the subject matter wasn’t strictly science, nor was the format settled at all. Each week, the show would air think pieces by Mr. Abumrad and other young NPR producers, often thematically–if tendentiously–linked. Thirty-one episodes ran that first year, from “Death Penalty and the Prison Economy” to “Race Relations, the Power of Pop, and the History of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues.” Today, MP3s of this period are dug up and exchanged by fans like passed-down artifacts from the years just before one’s parents met.
Radiolab took on its present form in 2005, with the arrival of Mr. Krulwich, a veteran science reporter for PBS and ABC News as well as NPR. To his 30-something co-host’s experimental mélange of curious topics and more curious sounds, Mr. Krulwich, now in his 60s, brought a calming, erudite avuncularity, and the banter between the two soon became the most edifying bit of intergenerational male bonding on your radio dial.
With the on-air team in place, the weekly anthology of hodgepodge documentaries was sculpted down into immaculately edited seasons of five episodes each. The subject matter narrowed in scope, but broadened in outlook, to hour-long meditations on, and titled, “Time,” “Race,” “Diagnosis,” “Sperm” and so on.
Without the pair ever really planning on it, research scientists became the main guests. “Science just seemed to be the place where really big ideas were floating to the surface,” said Mr. Abumrad. And Radiolab, begun as a limited local series, turned into a premiere civilian springboard into scientific waters. The show is heard on more than 300 NPR stations. But radio itself is only a sideline–the real audience is online, where WNYC can whet listener appetites with short releases between episodes. With some 1.8 million subscribers, the Radiolab podcast is the first you’ll find listed under “What’s Hot” on the iTunes Store’s Science and Medicine page.
Of course, popular science has always been, well, popular, as the ubiquity of New Yorkers like CUNY string theorist Michio Kaku and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson attests. In fact, Radiolab features many of the same popularizers as a Discovery Channel or a Discover magazine, including Mr. Tyson and the Columbia professors Brian Greene and Oliver Sacks; it often seeks out more obscure experts but doesn’t shy away from the popularizers of the popularizers (Malcolm Gladwell, etc.). What’s unique about Radiolab is its popularizees: a devoted fandom less of suburban dads and rec-room tinkerers than of creative-class strivers like Ms. Stanley tuning in via white earbuds on the subway to underpaid jobs in galleries and design firms, on movie sets and in publishing houses.
“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.
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.”