Pillbox

Abumrad offers a science journalist's perspective

Fighting with your best friend, studying for a challenging exam, pulling on a rubber band until it almost snaps — all of these things create what we define as tension. But what about a well-told story? According to Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad, that involves tension, too.

Abumrad and his co-host Robert Krulwich have spent years developing Radiolab, a popular NPR program now in its 11th season that has become known for its accessibility in dealing with challenging scientific and lofty philosophical questions. Abumrad and Krulwich ask real questions and look for real answers that can be understood by real people — and they do so in an entertaining and engaging way. That’s something that few can brag about.

Abumrad’s talk on Tuesday, hosted by AB Lectures, was humorous, honest, and inspiring. His story is one of uncertainty, setbacks — and, well, tension. He embodies some combination of journalist, musician, producer, scientist, and philosopher, but he is none of these things in the traditional sense. The tension in his job is “the kind of tension that lies in the head of someone who’s doing something that’s hard to describe,” he said.

During college, Abumrad studied music composition and creative reading, dreaming of writing scores for film. But after writing one full score for a feature film, he realized that path wasn’t quite right for him. His fascination with the abstractions of science and nature began in his mid-20s, and it wasn’t until then that he began to find a place to combine all of his interests.

He started Radiolab with Krulwich in 2005 and has been filling a gap in science journalism ever since. Listeners have come to expect a lot from a Radiolab episode; in addition to the compelling content, the show features a unique production style. Incorporating music, sound effects, and raw interview clips — interspersed with live questions from the hosts — creates a natural flow of thought that guides listeners on a mental journey.

In many ways, each episode is like a musical composition, with slower buildup sections and high-intensity crescendos into the meat of the story. Every second of the show is more compelling and engaging than the second before, seducing the listener, as Abumrad put it. “It’s kind of slutty,” he joked.

Perhaps the most difficult part of creating the show, he noted, is balancing “the stickiness of stories and the intensity of science” to create a meaningful and memorable learning experience for listeners. Working hard to find a balance between science and philosophy, wonder and fact, Abumrad acknowledged that stress is an important part of what he does. “It means I’m doing my job,” he said.

Like any other endeavor, Radiolab sometimes has failures, as Abumrad was quick to point out. There are times when conflicts can’t be resolved on the show and when no real answer comes out of an interview. To Krulwich and Abumrad, however, it’s important to broadcast their failures, because their job is to explore the world, and failures are to be expected.

The lecture was announced just days before, which may have contributed to the low audience turnout. But for those who were there, Abumrad’s experiences held real value. As his work with Radiolab has made him keenly aware of, we are a “network of sometimes-contradictory thoughts,” and, to Abumrad, that’s okay. What really matters is how we react to the tension.