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Radiolab Is Still the Best Podcast at Instilling Wonder (When It Wants To)
Wonder is a difficult thing to instill. The world is throwing cynicism at us at a ridiculous pace (can someone please make it stop?), and getting a person to actually sit back and say "wow" in a positive way is an increasingly difficult proposition. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see Radiolab go full geek mode in their recent Smarty Plants, and it reminded me it’s still possible to feel like the world is awesome.
Coupled with their 2016 Tree to Shining Tree, these two episodes made me have a wondrous feeling about the plant world. The plant world! Not something sexy sounding like dark energy or the future of AI, but plants. And it all came down to excitement. In Smarty Plants, Jad Abumrad ribbed Robert Krulwich for always pitching stories about plants, going so far as to call it his "parade of plants", but his enthusiasm for the science and the scientists he interviewed proved too contagious.
Here is a quick recap of some of the cool findings Radiolab tells us are happening in the plant world:
First, as discussed in Tree to Shining Tree, it has been discovered that there is a whole nutrition based internet for trees, or "Wood Wide Web" (scientists love their puns). Tiny strands of fungi called mycorrhiza "are found on the roots of almost all land plants, and provide phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for carbon-based sugars.” This recent finding has completely reshaped what we know about how forests work.
Next, (with the rest being from the new Smarty Plants) it's been found that trees have the uncanny ability to find water, even when the water is in completely sealed pipes.
Scientists have even tried Pavlovian conditioning on pea plants, to see if the leaves will associate the blowing of a fan with getting light.
Amazingly, just like the famous example of a dog salivating at the sound of a dinner bell, it seems when properly conditioned, pea plants will bend towards a fan in a completely dark room, expecting light to be there too.
Lastly, there is the really cool example of the Mimosa plant, which will move its leave inwards if it feels threatened. (short video showing this). In a normal setting, if you gently drop the plant, it will do its defensive response.
But a scientist found that if she does this drop over and over, in the right conditions, the Mimosa plant seems to remember that falling won't hurt it, and it will stay open.
This all gives me so many questions. So, can plants learn new (albeit simple) things? Can they form a simple trade economy? Do they have memory? How are they finding their way towards water pipes even if no water is leaking out?
This is what Radiolab excels at, making you ask questions you didn’t know you had before listening. The big questions turn into lots of new little questions.
Radiolab needs more of this
But against my selfish wishes, not every Radiolab episode is like this. In fact, compared to the last few years of shows, this was more a wonderful surprise than par for the course.
I would love to live in a world where Radiolab's feed was just full of episodes like Smarty Plants. Which is why I can’t help but be a little disappointed in the lack of wonder present in most Radiolab shows lately. I find that whatever they create is usually great, but increasingly could have easily been from any number of other high profile public radio style shows. Radiolab tells good stories, but they tell really good science stories.
What exactly, is Radiolab?
Maybe it’s not fair of me to want more science from Radiolab though, because in a 2014 interview on The Colbert Report, Abumrad explicitly says the show is about experimenting with storytelling as its main framework. Not science journalism, but storytelling. With that said, they were certainly questioning what type of show they were about a decade ago.
While talking through the history of the show, Abumrad has admitted in interviews that the show has gone through some major shifts over the last six years or so. It did start off very much as a science focused show that specifically went for a feeling of wonder, but has gradually leaned towards stories of a more human and messy nature. You get the sense that Abumrad likes to steer the show in new directions that keep its experimental feel, that keeps people guessing. Mixing things up surely keeps the staff sane, but I think the more the show tells stories that would feel right at home on This American Life, the less exciting Radiolab feels. For example, I’ve probably heard more buzz around Smarty Plants than any other episode in recent memory, an episode I can’t imagine anywhere else.
The special sauce of a great Radiolab episode
The magic of my favorite Radiolab episodes (like the well known Colors) comes of course from Abumrad's phenomenal production and editing skills, but equally from Krulwich's unabashed excitement about science. It's hard for any podcast to match the production quality of Radiolab, but it's equally difficult for any host or guest to match Krulwich's contagious glee around certain topics. When I hear the excitement in someone's voice (about anything really), it's very easy for me to jump on the excitement train. That's the missing piece for most podcasts, or any media for that matter. Honest to goodness excitement. Think about how rare it is in these times of celebrated cynicism and irony. With podcasts, you have the advantage of attention, but you also have the disadvantage of everyone being an expert at picking up subtle clues about the person talking. Do they sound like they actually know what they are talking about? Are they passionate? Are they nonironically excited? You can't fake those things. Radiolab has obviously been putting out some fine, fine audio stories, but I selfishly want more science and wonder, like only they can. I think we all could use it.
p.s.: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few shows that are absolutely excellent science shows in their own right. If you want all science stories all the time, check out: Undiscovered, Outside/In, Sum of All Parts, Hi-Phi Nation, Science Solved It, and The Story Collider.