Partner Series
Wonder, Discovery and Big Ideas: The World of Radiolab
Jad Abumrad is the host and creator of Radiolab, public radio's Peabody Award-winning program devoted to wonder, discovery and big ideas.
Credit: MarcoAntonio.com for WNYC's Radiolab

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Jad Abumrad is the host and creator of the National Science Foundation supported public radio program Radiolab, a Peabody Award winning cult sensation devoted to wonder, discovery and big ideas. The son of a scientist and a doctor, Jad's interest in science actually came later, after studying creative writing and music composition at Oberlin College in Ohio, then writing film scores and becoming a reporter.

The program launched in 2002, with a reboot in 2005 when esteemed National Public Radio science correspondent Robert Krulwich joined as co-host, Radiolab now airs on over 300 stations nationally and consistently ranks as one of iTunes top-downloaded podcasts. In 2011, Jad received the highly-coveted MacArthur Genius Award. He is 37 years old and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son, with a second child due in February 2012. Radiolab is produced by WNYC — for further information and how to listen, please visit www.radiolab.org.

Below, Abumrad answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions.

Name: Jad Abumrad
Age: 37
Institution: Radiolab, WNYC, National Public Radio

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
My parents are both scientists, so I suppose they had something to do with it. But their influence was like a grenade that didn't go off until I was in my late twenties. I was never interested in science as a kid. "Science"to me was the boring lab where I'd have to sit for hours every day after school, on uncomfortable chairs, waiting for my mother to take me home.

Sometimes I'd pass the time by playing with her lab rats, with no idea that they'd probably be sacrificed a day or two later. It took me a long time to want to learn what actually happens in those places. I think what initially drew me in (back to the family fold) was the emerging fusion of psychology and neuroscience and this idea that you could begin to address the mysteries of human behavior by actually looking inside a human head.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best piece of advice I ever received was from a friend who quoted to me something Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his letters to a young poet. I don't remember the exact wording, but the quote culminated in the refrain "Be the question! Be the question."I take that to mean: don't be didactic, don't over-explain — just be curious. Embody the question you're trying to answer, and the joy of the search, but don't worry too much about whether that question will ever actually get answered.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?
I once took a raw egg, put it in a ziplock bag filled with salt water, threw the bag out a four-story window, thinking the buoyancy of the salt water would buffer the egg and protect it from impact. I was wrong.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?
Hmm — I don't thinking this question applies to me. But if you replace "researcher" in these questionswith "reporter,"my favorite thing about the business of reporting science is that occasional intoxicating but momentary brain fever that happens when you encounter a powerful new idea. I see my job to infect others with the brain fever. Sometimes that means working for weeks on a story, going through countless edits. But the intent is always to create in another person that fleeting feeling you had at the beginning.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?
For what I do, curiosity. And a beginner's mind. After all, it's all tenacity. Every story we tell wants very badly to be ordinary and forgettable and so we have to stop it from being bad, sometimes by force.

What are the societal benefits of your research?
I hope we lead people to a few moments of wonder. One or two moments where a listener cocks their head sideways and looks at the world around them like an alien might, seeing all the weird and fascinating glory.

Abumrad's storytelling influences include: Walter Murch, Ira Glass (of <i>This American Life</i> fame), Bach counterpoint, and his co-host Robert Krulwich.
Abumrad's storytelling influences include: Walter Murch, Ira Glass (of This American Life fame), Bach counterpoint, and his co-host Robert Krulwich.
Credit: MarcoAntonio.com for WNYC's Radiolab

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

My storytelling influences are pretty varied, but chief among them would be:

  1. The amazing film editor Walter Murch (whose books on editing were my early bibles).
  2. Ira Glass. I routinely diagram the structure of This American Life stories for inspiration.
  3. Bach counterpoint. We studied a lot of voice leading theory in music school and while I can't say any of it directly makes it into the stories I produce, it all serves as inspiration.
  4. My co-host Robert Krulwich. The smartest guy I know, hands down.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most?
People might be surprised by how many stories we chase after but ultimately abandon. And they might be surprised by how very clumsy studio sessions become delightful and articulate after a few rounds of editing.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
Over the years, some of the staff have drawn pictures of various things and taped them on the glass wall of my office. A picture of a whale eyeball. Dinosaurs socializing. A graveyard of dead, stick-figure babies. I can't even remember the context of each drawing, but they've become like shorthand for all the amazingly talented people I'm lucky enough to have worked with, and I'd run back in to the burning building to save a few.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
At work, I listen to music that's pretty much not music. I can't focus if there's too much melodic or harmonic complexity, so I go for various kinds of drone music. Static-state stuff. If you walk by my office, you're likely to hear noises that resemble the hum of a refrigerator or the endless sustain of detuned guitar string.

Editor's Note: The individuals depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.