By Robert Thorn
Have you ever been curious about the way different organisms seen light, the history behind zoos or how the placebo effect works? Then Radiolab might be the radio show for you! Radiolab is produced by WNYC, which is one of New York’s public radio stations, and can be found in podcast form at radiolab.org. To date Radiolab has released over 70 full length podcasts (about an hour in length), countless “shorts” and a handful of live shows. Radiolab is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Neither Jad nor Robert are scientists per se, but what they do during each segment can only be described as science. Each episode starts with Jad and Robert discussing a topic, they give their thoughts about how a topic may work (a hypothesis if you will) and throughout the hour they discuss the topic and unravel some of the mysteries, leaving each episode with a better understanding of the topic.
Throughout each hour Jad and Robert get in contact with experts in the field, many times by phone, to help them build the story. Not only are these people expert scientists, but they will sometimes contact people who were personally involved in events pertaining to the topic and can give eyewitness accounts of revolutionary events in the field, giving the show a wonderful sense of relevance that would be otherwise hard to obtain. Oftentimes Jad will take one point of view and Robert will take another, allowing a full, genuine discussion of topics that may sometimes be controversial. Jad and Robert are supported by a team of producers and writers who will often be heard on the show helping to synthesize the ideas for shows or tracking down story leads around the country and sometimes even further!
The team at Radiolab thrives in its ability to discuss subjects in such a way that it is accessible to people of all scientific persuasions. I find as much enjoyment listening to the show, as my non-science friends do. It not only expands my perspectives on familiar topics, but it also allows me to discuss science topics with friends who are new to the topic. The Radiolab podcast is not only about the science though. They interweave sounds and music into the podcast in such a way as to breathe life into the story. Before listening to Radiolab I thought that public radio was solely comprised of boring newscasters speaking in monotone reporting on political events, but Radiolab shattered that perception in a wonderful way. Sound is not only used as a way to liven up the narrative, but it is also used as a tool to help explain scientific concepts.
The best example of the use of sound to illustrate a point is in the Radiolab episode titled “Colors” (Season 10 Episode 13). Jad and Robert were discussing how different animals would see a rainbow. As they explored this topic, they enlisted the help of a choir to illustrate what they learned about color vision in animals. Different voice parts of the choir sang different color names. Lower voice groups were the reds of the rainbow and the voice groups became progressively higher until they reached the violet and ultraviolet ranges of the rainbow. As they moved on to different animals with better vision than humans they would play a recap of the voices harmonizing as an analogy to the rainbow that the animal would see. This use of sound is typical of Radiolab’s ingenious ability to illustrate points that are otherwise sight dependent.
Overall, the best description of Radiolab comes straight from the about section at radiolab.org, stating, “Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” Whether you are casually interested in science, or work in a scientific field, Radiolab is a podcast that will captivate your interests and have you thinking about science in a new way.