Jad Abumrad: Accidental Scientist

Mar 14, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 2:32 pm

Before the public radio show, WNYC's Radiolab became a cult hit, Jad Abumrad and his future co-host, NPR's Robert Krulwich, would meet up at a local diner and argue about scientific curiosities. Through a series of happy accidents, these debates became the basis for their hugely popular radio show.

Jad joins host Ophira Eisenberg on the Ask Me Another stage to explain how radio became an unlikely medium for him to explore his interests in both music and writing, and why he is hesitant to classify Radiolab as strictly a "science show."

"Ultimately I'm interested in walking to that place beyond which we can only speculate and dream, and engage in mystery and wild conjectures," he says. "But I don't want to do that in a cheap way. Not in a get-high-in-your-dorm room kind of way."

On each episode of Radiolab, Jad and Robert tackle tough questions about life, the universe, and the relationship between humans and nature. Some themes the show has attempted to explore seemed impossible at first, like when they tried to depict sonically what a mantis shrimp might see as it looked at the rainbow. But they did it. "I no longer believe in the limitations of what we do," Jad says.

Later in the show, Jad finds himself in the puzzle hot seat for a quiz about other scientific accidents – ones that led to some important discoveries and inventions. And because he's a certified genius, Ophira tells Jad that he must get a perfect score on this quiz. Can he do it? Anything can happen in the lab of this trivia experiment.

About Jad Abumrad

The son of a scientist and a doctor, Jad Abumrad did most of his growing up in Tennessee, before studying creative writing and music composition at Oberlin College in Ohio. Following graduation, Abumrad wrote music for films, and reported and produced documentaries for a variety of local and national public radio programs, including On the Media, PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and WNYC's "24 Hours at the Edge of Ground Zero".

In the video below, Jad demonstrates how Radiolab features sound as a storytelling tool.

This segment originally ran on March 15, 2013.

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You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is this week's VIP. That's geek-speak for very important puzzler, Radiolab's Jad Abumrad.



JAD ABUMRAD: I'm super excited and a little nervous to be here.

EISENBERG: Don't be nervous. I like the fact that Ophira Eisenberg and Jad Abumrad are sitting down. It sounds like we're going to solve peace in the Middle East.


ABUMRAD: Or we could at least sort of appreciate one another's hard to pronounce names, right.

EISENBERG: Exactly. Public radio names, as I like to say. So I teased earlier in the show what IQ is considered a genius. Just wondering, when you were awarded the MacArthur, did you have to take an IQ test for that?

ABUMRAD: I think you've got to get into double-digits but no more.




EISENBERG: That's it.


EISENBERG: Thirty-four, is that okay?


EISENBERG: That's what I scored. Just for anyone that's listening that wants to know what the answer to that was, you have to score - I think a genius is about 140 and up, something that I will never attain. What was your first job in radio?

ABUMRAD: I guess that would have to be I volunteered for a community station here in New York, WBAI.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

ABUMRAD: And I did news reporting for them. And it was the kind of thing where - I don't know if it's like this way now, but back in those days, you could just walk in there and then that day you could be covering some City Hall thing and no know what the hell you're doing.

EISENBERG: They'd be like, "You, here, do this."

ABUMRAD: You, get out there. And you're doing like a 12-minute piece about a protest.

EISENBERG: And how did things progress for you, creating a show called Radiolab that is a cult hit?

ABUMRAD: I don't know. I feel like I'm a couple of lucky break away from being a well-educated bum with a double-digit IQ.



ABUMRAD: I don't know. You know, I sort of wanted to be a musician and that was sort of my plan all along. And pretty quickly after school realized I was no good at that.


ABUMRAD: And I was also writing a lot. And so somewhere maybe three or four years after school, I decided that the two things I liked to do kind of met in the middle at radio. I had never listened to the radio. I had no relationship with the radio as a kid. I grew up listening to radio in the back of cars and kind of - public radio, and sort of being bored by it. But somewhere like, you know...


ABUMRAD: ...coming out of school, I thought, wow, you know, it's a radio, what an interesting idea. It's sort of both things I like to do. And so I started volunteering. One thing led to another. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

EISENBERG: So basically, the moral is you got to show up.

ABUMRAD: Take a shower every so often.

EISENBERG: Take a shower.


ABUMRAD: But yeah, but then I think basic hygiene and just show up, yeah.

EISENBERG: Most people think of Radiolab as a science show, but it is obviously so much more than that. It makes science entertaining and accessible. But if you were to describe what it is, what do you say? Science show?

ABUMRAD: I don't, actually. I mean it's certainly a show that's interested in science.


ABUMRAD: But it's about science seems to sort of be a confining way of talking about it. I think of it as it's a show that is interested in the scientific method. But ultimately, I feel it's sort of like a vampire would feel, to where like I want to suck the blood of science and dispose of the corpse.


ABUMRAD: That's kind of how I feel about science. I don't ultimately care about science, but I love the questions, I love the method. I love the way in which you can be rigorous and investigate what you can know about the world.

But ultimately, I'm interested in walking to that place beyond which we don't know, beyond which we can only speculate and dream and engage in mystery and wild conjectures. But I don't want to do that in a cheap way, not like a, you know, get high in your dorm room kind of way.


ABUMRAD: I really want to take seriously...

EISENBERG: The next step, you want to take the next step up.

ABUMRAD: ...what you can know so that you can get to that place and feel like you've earned it, like that moment of wonder.

EISENBERG: So if I were to take all the episodes of Radiolab and put them together and try to see what the overall question, the overall problem that is trying to be solved, what would it be?


EISENBERG: That's good, right? That's a good one, right?

ABUMRAD: That's a good one, yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah, I thought of that.


ABUMRAD: That might have been one that you could have just warned me about in advance.


ABUMRAD: No, you know what, I think I have a - let me bumble my way to an answer. I think, like here's something we keep coming back to again and again and again. We don't mean to but suddenly it's there, questions of free will.


ABUMRAD: You know, questions of like "can an individual break free from their destiny?" Can they somehow exert their own authorship on the universe? So every story that we do I think has that secret sort of idea, like we, I, us make a difference.

EISENBERG: I feel like I'm sort of in, like, cosmic therapy right now, just so you know.


EISENBERG: I'm learning a lot about me by talking to you. Is that - it's narcissistic a little bit, but I like it.

ABUMRAD: No, no, go with it.

EISENBERG: Do you have any themes that you've tried to explore that you're just like, "Nope, this will never see the light of day," for whatever reason?

ABUMRAD: I would have said anything and everything to do with physics, but no, we've done a lot of physics recently. So, you know we recently did a show where we tried to sonify what a mantis shrimp would see as it looked at the rainbow. Okay?


ABUMRAD: And I thought to myself while doing that...

EISENBERG: That's amazing.


EISENBERG: That's sounds amazing.

ABUMRAD: I was like if there's any story that can never be done on the radio, this is it.


ABUMRAD: But we did it, and I think it actually worked.


ABUMRAD: Thank you. So now I no longer believe in the limitations of what we do. I feel like we can do anything.

EISENBERG: Do your friends and family members - you know how some people - do people call you up and they're like "Why is Pluto no longer a planet?" "Why can't I eat a spoonful of cinnamon?" Like do they call you up with...


ABUMRAD: No, but I will find myself and parties and someone will be like "Jad knows about science."


ABUMRAD: Come over here, he's talking about wholesale copying of DNA sequences. I don't know. With the genius thing now, I'm suddenly expected to have opinions on things that I just don't know anything about.

EISENBERG: All right, Jad, well, we are going to have a little trivia challenge for you later in the show. Fantastic. Thank you so much. A big hand for Jad Abumrad.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.