Radiolab Hosts On Eyeballs, Robots, and Why the World Doesn't Give a Shit About You
Robert Krulwich (left) in Radiolab's live show
With Radiolab bringing its live show to the Fillmore Wednesday night, Miami is about to get a whole lot smarter. But don't worry; our beloved good times and sexy dancers aren't going anywhere. We can expect to get our dose of wonder-stimulating scientific inquiry along with a spoonful of side-splitting comedy from stream-of-consciousness sketch comic Demetri Martin, a stage full of acrobatic silliness and dance, and an ear-full of rock and roll. It's like radio vaudeville, as host Robert Krulwich puts it.
The fact that WNYC's Radiolab even exists is almost as mind-blowing as some of the subject matter the cerebral radio show tackles. In its ability to engage listeners' whole minds, sparking vivid visualizations to follow awe-inspiring stories, it revives the spirit of pre-television radio plays. But these stories are real (or mostly real) and are marked by a healthy infusion of science and gorgeous attention to that most valuable human trait: curiosity.
Recent Radiolab episodes have included The Bad Show, which asks the question "Do we all have an evil side?" and highlights studies where humans believed they sent high-volt electric shocks through the bodies of unseen counterparts just because they were told to; and Patient Zero, which asks "Where do epidemics start?" and tracks HIV back to its origins, which may have involved a freak hunting accident in the wilds of Africa many decades before we ever fathomed such a virus could exist. In true Radiolab spirit, which usually balances the heavy with the light, Patient Zero also hunts down the origins of the now-ubiquitous "high-five," which are surprisingly analogous -- especially in their murkiness -- to those of a disease.
The show's hosts are Krulwich, who served as Washington Bureau chief for Rolling Stone in his early career and went on to become a host and correspondent for CBS, ABC, PBS, and NPR; and Jad Abumrad, who's got a long working relationship with NPR as a radio documentarian, host and producer, with a focus on scientific topics.
We proud radio dorks were lucky enough to snag a few minutes with these busy guys to ask them about their Miami
New Times: How do you feel about bringing Radiolab Live: In the Dark to a Miami audience?
Jad Abumrad: We're really, really excited to come to Miami. We've done the show before, but it still feels like the first time in a weird way. Because Miami feels like a whole new thing. It feels like a real stretch for us. It's not New York or San Francisco, where we know there are entrenched public radio people. It's kind of fun to see how well this thing can travel.
Miami's known for liking, well, shallow things. Given that Radiolab is kind of a cerebral program, do you think that Miami will get Radiolab?
Abumrad: If we can get Miami in the door and their asses in the seats, they're not only gonna get Radiolab, they're gonna be so got by Radiolab that they're gonna change the name [of the city] to "Radiolab-mi."
Robert Krulwich: They're going to change the name of Biscayne Boulevard to "Radiolab Boulevard."
What is the live show all about?
Krulwich: There are three stories, with lots of fun stuff in between. One of them involves your eyeballs. Another one involves two very funny people who argue about something crazy. And the third is a space adventure, which includes near-death, and incredible beauty.
Abumrad: From the perspective of the people watching, they are experiences, they're not lessons. For the first, we have these things we're all used to seeing, these balls of jelly in our heads, and how they came into the world and evolved. And the second time, you get to experience the world without these balls of jelly. What would the world be like then? People say being blind is like floating through space.
Krulwich: And so we recreate your space right in front of you. And also this has got comedy and dance. The heart of this is what you would call radio vaudeville. So Jad walks onto the stage with a small box. And contained in that box are all the sounds of the radio program. So the people who we want to hear from, the wind, the rain, the noises, everything, is in the box. And Jad hits a button on the box and up pops whatever we need. So it's sort of Hans Christian Anderson with a computer. And then, if that's not enough, we add one of the funniest people we could find, a rock and and roller, and nine incredible dancers.
The first story is called "Where do eyes come from?" And you think, well that's a pretty complex thing. If it took a million years to make an eye, what did half an eye do? Or a quarter of an eye? Or a thousandth of an eye? So how does an eye evolve? And we actually build you one, on stage, as it happened in nature.
An eye, for a creature, does three things. That thing that I see out there, is that something that wants to eat me? Is it something that I can eat? Or could I mate with it? You have to be able to distinguish between one and another, because you don't want to walk up to a lady and then have her eat you. So we need to give this creature, over time, an eye that will help him resolve this question. So you get to see an eye growing before your eyes.
Abumrad: Then in the second story you get to meet two people whose eyes have sort of vanished. They've degraded, and they go blind, in pretty much the same way, but they have incredibly different experiences of what it means to be blind. And they end up almost pushing each other in an argument about what's the true way to be blind.
Krulwich: And the third story is an adventure story, where two good friends who are 250 miles off the earth, decide to go out one night (and night is 45 minutes where they are) to look into deep space at all the stars. And then something very unexpected happens to them. It's a space adventure.
Abumrad: It involves near asphyxiation and a poignant moment where man almost dies while looking at an image of his family.
Interesting. So, on the radio show, you seem to be doing a lot of shows about robots and artificial intelligence lately. Do you think they'll one day walk among us, or that maybe they already do?
Abumrad: You go through your day, and hear 70 "thank yous" from various robots. The auto-checkout thing at Pathmark says "thank you." Robots are thanking you all the time. There's a constant stream of automated appreciation. It just makes you wonder. We are either surrendering our autonomy to these things, or just [filling] our lives with these machines. It just raises interesting questions about "What are human beings?" Robots per se for me aren't that interesting, but it gives you an interesting mirror on who we are.
Krulwich: For some people who want to be immortal, I think it's comforting to think they can just dump their minds into some machine and just go on. That's a perfectly understandable urge. But when you think about it, you go, "But can you really do that?" It's a humble thought.
But what about consciousness? Wouldn't you lose that in the process?
Krulwich: There's the theory that if you build a computer with as many connections as a mind has -- which is many trillions -- that a mind would emerge out of that box. Or maybe you could put your mind into that box. There are other people who think that the software is much more important than just making a lot of typing points. So until someone comes up with that, it would be very hard to put a mind in a bottle.
Abumrad: In a less abstract sort of way, I genuinely love my iPhone. I've got to a place with these devices where I feel this kind of fondness for this bunch of circuits that I would feel for another human being.
Krulwich: No you don't.
Abumrad: Well, not entirely. But I genuinely love it. I have a sense of warmth toward this machine. Which is sort of interesting and troubling.
Krulwich: More troubling!
Abumrad: They become emotional prosthetics.
As part of the show, you highlight and explore a lot of psychological phenomena. What are some of the most surprising things you've learned about people?
Krulwich: If you asked me to look backwards, there was one story where a guy goes into a forest, and he thinks he's tracking a jaguar, and he's very good at that, and he thinks he's in total charge of a situation. He's athletic, very sure of himself, very bold, very courageous, very macho guy. Something's funny. Something's odd. He's tracking the trail of the cat. And the trail keeps turning and turning, and he turns around, and there is the jaguar. He thought he was tracking the jaguar, but the jaguar was tracking him. And it was so close to him that it could have eaten him at any time. And he thought to himself, from his very superior sense of things one second before, "I am nothing."
Abumrad: All the way back at the beginning of RadioLab, we did an interview with a woman named Ann Druyan, who organized this Voyager record, sort of a mix tape of humanity. It had whale sounds, and music of various genres. They put it on a record and launched a capsule into space for sort of a romantic gesture to say "This is who we are." We were revisiting it yesterday because the capsule was about to leave our solar system, and right at the edge it was going through some sort of turbulent passage before it makes its debut to the universe, in some sense.
She was describing a picture that the Voyager capsule took along the way. And as it passed Neptune, it turned around and took a picture back of earth. And it's a famous picture, where essentially you see a canopy of stars, and in kind of the lower right quadrant you see a tiny blue dot. And that's us.
Carl Sagan called us the pale blue dot. And [Druyan] was describing that point-of-view shift, where earlier we had the point of view from the Apollo's view point, where the earth filled the frame. And now we have a picture of a dot, a pixel.
And something happens in that shift. And that shift is something I think that science bestows on humanity, I think, for better or for worse, which is that we get smaller and smaller and smaller in the face of an infinite, vast universe.
And I think there's something noble about human beings charging out into that vastness, sort of unburdening yourself of the ego, and just going out and trying to understand the world, knowing that the world doesn't give a shit about you. And so for me, that's what stays with me. The stuff of human exploration, and the noble desire to want to know about our world that is so much bigger than we could ever understand.
You guys spend a lot of time together and explore a lot of topics together. What's one of the most interesting things you've found out about each other over all these years?
Abumrad: I could talk about that for hours. One of the things that makes us work from my perspective is, back in the beginning I felt like Robert and I had kind of positions and roles that that we played in the show. I would be more of the sort of naïve wonder boy, and he would be more the skeptic. I feel like every time we do a story, I find that our places expand. And Robert's reaction to things, his capacity to say something smart, or to say something poignant... I never quite know what Robert's going to think about something.
But I always know that we're going to agree when something's beautiful. We're going to agree when something's meaningful. And beyond that, we're both moving targets. And that feels exciting.
Krulwich: I feel the same way. It's a pretty deep friendship, where you share the things that you share, and you share the things that you don't share. Sometimes, in one mood, you sort of love together the thing that you find beautiful, and in another case, you tug the opposite sides of the things you find different. And it's just a very rare thing when you meet someone whom you can play with in all moods.
Abumrad: And I think, I would even say that the people who come and sit in the audience and watch us, I think what's on display more than anything is that. I think why the show works is that it's an advertisement for some deep animal spirits that really like each other, but at times have also found differences, but also really want to know about the world.
Krulwich: I think that we're like the audience in many ways. We don't pretend to know what we're talking about. We learn in front of you. In ordinary reporting, the reporter goes off and learns what they need to know, then talks to you in [an authoritative voice], to let you know that they've sort of done their homework. We learn right in front of you, and take sides. And that's very useful because it just celebrates curiosity.
The other thing we're advertising is just that: Let's all go out together and find out this certain thing. You don't know about it, we don't know about it. Let's do this together.
Radiolab's show goes on at 8 p.m., February 1 at the Fillmore on Miami Beach. Tickets cost $38.50 to $48.50. Go to fillmoremb.com or call 305-673-7300.
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