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Courtesy of New York Public Radio

Radiolab

Popular podcast gets the science right without bogging listeners down in terminology

By Kylie Taggart

If you overheard two guys having a conversation about tumours jumping between Tasmanian devils, or long-distance cyclists so fatigued they hallucinate that mailboxes are monsters, or something equally strange, you’d want to eavesdrop, right? Well, it turns out you can. Download WNYC’s Radiolab podcast, and tune in to host and producer Jad Abumrad and co-host Robert Krulwich talking about amazing finds in science. 

Radiolab’s format is compelling: one host tells the other a story. As a listener, you really believe the other host has never heard the tale before, and so the questions he poses seem fresh and honest. Excerpts from interviews are spliced into the discussion — and not all are with scientists. Those tumours in Tasmanian devils? Meet the amateur wildlife photographer who first spotted the odd growth inside the beasts’ snarling mouths. 

The show is a layered listening experience: in addition to talk, there are sound effects, original music and bits of interviews. Luckily, the end result is not obtrusive but makes the show intriguing and multi-dimensional.

Each hour-long episode explores two or three areas of a theme. For example, an episode on limits examines physical limits (featuring the cyclists attacked by mailboxes), mental limits and limits of knowledge. For the time-pressed, 20-minute “shorts” are available that look at one aspect of a theme. While interesting, they are not as fulfilling as a full episode.

Real science junkies might leave Radiolab feeling starved for meatier information. In an effort to make the show accessible, the hosts sometimes skim the surface of their subject matter and fail to explore themes as deeply as they could. Of course, the pitfall of simplifying complex information is that it can lead to errors. But Radiolab gets the science right, without getting bogged down in scientific terminology. That’s commendable, and it makes the show worthwhile to scientists and non-scientists alike.

Kylie Taggart is a writer in Ottawa and a member of Glebe-St. James United.
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