Friday, October 5, 2012

Radiolab Love

This past weekend Ian and I got to go do something fun.  We are seldom able to wrangle any time free from the fixed schedule of work and army and rehearsals and school, etc.  But back in August I found out that the NPR program Radiolab was planning a live version of their show in Milwaukee at the end of September and I decided we were going.

I'm a bit of a Radiolab junkie.  It's a peculiar show with a unique sound and rhythm, and is somewhat of an acquired taste.  It has a heavy science slant, but some shows are purely about music, and others touch on philosophy or history or just good storytelling.  The program airs sporadically because they don't produce many shows and they wind up temporarily in slots replacing reruns of other things, so I only ever find it on the radio by accident.

The way I regularly listen to Radiolab is through their podcasts.  I have as many shows as I can get on my ipod and every time I walk the dog I listen to another snippet.  Radiolab has also kept me from going insane with boredom on very long car trips that include traffic jams in Chicago and has actually made those drives enjoyable.  Even when all I have time to hear is whatever I can catch on one spin around the block with Chipper, I learn something or am surprised or delighted, I often laugh and am occasionally reduced to tears.  I love Radiolab.

I began listening to it entirely because of Robert Krulwich who, along with Jad Abumrad (whose perspective and style I've come to love as well), hosts the show.  I saw a piece he did as a reporter for ABC News back when I was in high school and was so taken with his approach and presentation that I made a point to memorize his name.  He's serious enough to feel trustworthy, but usually sounds ready to be amused.  Robert Krulwich has been my favorite reporter for most of my life, and anytime I catch his voice on the radio or television I stop to listen because I know it will be interesting.  Several years ago I turned on NPR and found an odd program about ethics and how our brains work that I almost turned off because the sound design was distracting and the level to which it seemed to be trying so hard was annoying, but then I caught the voice of Robert Krulwich.  So I stayed with it and got sucked in, and have been a Radiolab fan ever since.

The live show was great.  Dave Foley (from 'Kids in the Hall' and 'News Radio') did standup and helped move things along, Robert and Jad did their familiar banter that somehow doesn't feel scripted even when it is, there was wonderful live music by Thao Nguyen, and the Pilobolus dance troupe not only danced but assisted the program with a kind of informational science prop comedy.  It was entertaining and engrossing from beginning to end.

The theme was In the Dark, and was presented in roughly three segments. 
The first was all about the evolution of the eye, which managed to be both fascinating and funnier than it probably had any right to be.  They talked about how the existence of the eye, with it's complexity and dependence on so many interconnected parts, was a problem for people trying to understand evolution.  The eye was presented as evidence by many as an example of design, because it seemed illogical that the necessary pieces of the eye could provide enough of a biological advantage in order to be passed along and evolve.  But they described how our world existed for billions of years with nothing able to see it, and then step by step mutations occurred, first with creation of molecules that could catch photons, then more of those would collect together and produce a rudimentary sensor that knew when it was light or dark out.  Being able just to detect flickers of light could give an advantage to an organism over a predator.  A ring of cells built up behind that disc, making direction of light easier to determine, then more cells over time created more of a ball shape that improved that ability further, and eventually the clear skin built up over the back of it formed a lens.  As the story unfolded with both live narration from the hosts and recorded explanations from a scientist, Pilobolus illustrated points with shadow displays and dance and they essentially built a basic, working model eye on stage.  The whole segment ended with a Thao Nguyen singing her version of 'I Only Have Eyes For You' as the dancers donned giant eyeball heads and let loose.

The second part of the program was recorded interviews with two blind men with very different approaches to their lack of sight.  The first insisted that any attempt on his part to visualize his world was a lie and he wanted no part of it.  He wanted truth, and for him any image he had in his mind of his wife or his kids or his surroundings could never be real because it was constructed entirely by his imagination.  So he purged his mind of all visual imagery.  The other man, by comparison, was confident that the images he conjured in his head were accurate, and he believed he knew exactly what his wife looked like even though he met her several years after he went blind.  This man pictured things so vividly he was comfortable doing roof repairs himself.  This discussion was fascinating and strange and I'm still sorting out what I think of it.

The final segment was an interview with a astronaut and was one of the most amazing things I've ever heard.  I have to say, I have taken travel into space as something humans do for granted.  Maybe other people remember to regard astronauts as brave and their job as dangerous, but we seldom see current stories about them in the news, and I suppose I've come to think of people who work in space as elite pilots with science degrees.  This man's story was terrifying, and all I kept thinking was 'How often does this happen?' and 'Why didn't I know this?'  Robert and Jad started off by playing us the spacey hold music they got when they called NASA and asked to talk to an astronaut.  Pilobolus created ingenious visual pieces using light and shadow on a screen to accompany the story.  And what a story.

The first thing I learned was that you could be directly over the Earth and not see it.  If there is no sunlight to reflect off it, it simply looks like an absence of stars in that spot.  He said shadows in space are darker than anything you can imagine because it's so pure (no dust particles), and that when you stick your arm into a shadow in space it looks like it's gone.  The astronaut talked about doing repairs outside the space station while moving five miles a second, and how it felt like he was floating in place when there was nothing to compare his position to, but that when the sunrise came blasting over the Earth it raised the temperature 400 degrees and suddenly revealed him to be rushing over deserts and oceans.  He said the sun would rise and set 16 times in a day up there.  Anyway, he and his Russian partner essentially got locked out of the space station.  They tried for hours to get back in the way they came and it was no use.  So they figured out how to enter a different segment of the station, but it would require detaching themselves from the tubes that kept them alive leaving them with a matter of minutes to complete the operation.  And they hadn't counted on their masks fogging up when they did that so they unexpectedly had to do the work blind.  He said if he spit on his mask he could see briefly through the droplets, and what he caught sight of through the window of the area they were trying to enter was a photo of his family.  It was a heart stopping story and one that made me glad I just build violins for a living.

At the very end of the show everyone in the audience got to light up a little diode so from the stage we looked like stars.  It was lovely.

There was a post-show reception for those of us who splurged for the extra tickets.  I figured complimentary appetizers and the chance to meet the hosts was too good to pass up.  I got to shake hands with Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad and tell them how much I enjoyed the show.  The room was crowded and noisy and I'm sure it's boring for them to have one person after another simply say how much they love the program and act overly familiar since we have this one sided relationship over the radio.  But I told them I was a fan anyway, and mentioned that on a particular drive in the dark across the Midwest I was caught in a terrible traffic jam, but I didn't mind because I was listening to their show about sports and not only did I feel like I had virtual friends with me, they interviewed a writer named Dan Engber who I do actually know, and it made my day.  I probably sounded spluttering and silly the way fans generally do, but I'd have been mad at myself if I hadn't gotten up the nerve to say something.

What I really wanted to say was that the short stories about the afterlife by David Eagleman they introduced me to on their program are amazing, and that I passed them on to my brain mapping brother who normally doesn't have time to read, but because most of the stories are literally only two pages long I figure those he can find time for.  I wanted to tell them I'm jealous they talk so often with Dr Oliver Sacks and how I sent him an invitation to my wedding.  (My father told me it would be a good idea to send invitations to famous people, so I sent out half a dozen to people explaining that sometimes the most influential people in our lives aren't even people we get to meet, and in that spirit I hoped they would consider coming to my wedding.  Jimmy Carter was good about returning the RSVP card in a timely manner, and Miss Manners had her assistant write back to me to decline on nice stationary just like she advises the rest of us do.)  I wanted to tell them I'm glad to know about coccolithophores.  That I like it when they crack each other up on the show.  That the phrase "Sucky rainbow, dog" has entered our family repertoire, that my kids want to reproduce the experiment about offering people fruit or cake while trying to remember numbers, and that the followup they did on the defenestration of cats with Neil deGrasse Tyson made me laugh so hard I think I scared the dog on our walk that night.  I wanted to thank Robert for re-asking Jad an ethics question involving a baby after Jad finally had one of his own, because I had wondered for years if his answer would change based on that kind of personal experience.  I wanted to thank them for the show and have them know I really mean it.  Plus I want them to be my friends and come hang out and make s'mores or something, but that's just getting into the realm of the creepy, so I stuck with, "Love your show!" and moved on.

What I moved on to was Dave Foley in the food line, who when I said he did a wonderful job replied, "So did you!" which made me laugh and now I like him more than ever.

I'm hoping they do another live show in future and that next time I can convince more people to come with me.  What I'd really like is to bring my kids along, but they might not be ready yet.  The show was definitely targeted at adults, but on some level it really felt like it an extension of my children's Montessori education.  My kids associate learning with fun, and Radiolab at its core is really a creative embrace of curiosity about the world, so they would appreciate it.  There is an enthusiasm for learning and an appreciation for seeing and presenting things from new angles that makes Radiolab addictive for those of us who still kind of wish we were in school sometimes.  And it definitely improves a walk around the block.


  1. Reading the descriptions of the stories you told me the very same evening... and I still get goosebumps! I would say that I regret not having joined you, but that would betray my exhilaration of having danced with your kids to the motorized mirrorball and four '80s songs on repeat!


  2. I think I have to say I'm insanely jealous and yet, also beyond happy you got to attend a live show. I LOVE Radiolab (Robert Krulwich is wonderful!) and don't listen to it nearly as often as I would like. I don't know why I never considered podcasts (I know they exist, I just never think to acutally listen to them...). Audiobooks are my companion when I'm cooking or cleaning, so why not Radiolab? Thank you for the inspiration!