Since I’ve got Jad Abumrad on the phone, I figured I’d rattle off some of my biggest paranoid fears brought on by his science/everything public radio show and podcast Radiolab.
One: That a parasite is controlling my brain.
“Which it is,” he says.
Two: That I’m just a machine.
“Which you clearly are.”
And three: That I will one day be old and senile, and waiting at a fake bus stop for a bus that never comes.
There’s a “strong probability” of that, he says.
He’s joking, but he’s also sorta not. As the co-host of Radiolab — along with Robert Krulwich — Abumrad knows a little something about the hazy edges of the human experience.
The thing about parasites setting up shop in the brain and manipulating behavior is from season six, episode three. (Good stuff about zombie cockroaches in that one.) The people-are-machines idea comes from one of Radiolab’s bonus “shorts” released on March 19, 2012, on the code-cracking forefather of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing. And the last one? That was the March 23, 2010, short on a German nursing home that keeps Alzheimer’s patients from running away by installing a fake bus stop out front.
Of course, fear is not Radiolab’s primary intent. “There’s a silent, secret desire to disturb in some of the stuff we do. But it’s a ‘disturb’ implicit in our mission which is to startle people, to shock people into new ways to see the world,” says Abumrad. “So yeah, maybe fear is a part of that.”
An episode of Radiolab, now in its 10th season and heard locally on WHYY, usually involves its hosts exploring scientific, philosophical and psychological themes through a series of stories. It bears a skeletal resemblance to This American Life, though Abumrad’s mood-enhancing sound design — B-movie bleeps and bloops for a space story, irksome repetitions for a conversation on loops, incidental compositions throughout — makes Radiolab hard to mistake for anything else on the dial.
“I feel like my job is to lead people to moments of wonder. To, step by step, walk myself and the people who I’m talking to right up to that moment,” says Abumrad. “You go to science to help you explain things. You go outside science when science fails to explain things. But you’re always moving because of that curiosity in order to get to a sense of awe. But a genuine sense of awe. Not, like, a cheap, easy sense of awe, but a real sense of awe at how the world works.”
The key, he says, is sifting through mountains of stories and ideas for that one moment that gives you “a temporary brain fever,” as he calls it. “You get kind of like a flash of heat, like, Holy shit, really?’”
After that comes the research, the interviews and the reporting, “which is like the most over-articulated, cerebral thing. It somehow walks you away from that initial moment. But the whole intent was to somehow get the person on the other side of the box to have that same temporary brain fever you had from the very, very beginning.”
So how do you rekindle the brain fever? “That’s why I have Robert. And why he has me. When you’re in these situations, usually one of you is deep in it and the other one isn’t,” says Abumrad. “It’s an act of empathy, in the end. It’s not an act of manipulation because you really are trying to get someone to feel what you feel so that you can share.”
For a classic Radiolab moment of wonder, check out “Animal Minds” (Jan. 11, 2010). The opening story concerns a 50-ton humpback whale tangled up in crab gear off the coast of California and the divers who swam up to cut it free. I won’t spoil it for you. Just look it up and listen. “You know, when I heard about this guy staring into the eye of a whale, all I could think was: I want to make people feel the way that I felt when I heard about it. And it is about that sense of being present, and being small in the eye of a creature that’s so grand, and so unlike you, so alien.”
Recently the show has hit the road; this Friday at the Kimmel Center, Abumrad and Krulwich will be joined by the Pilobolus dance troupe, musician Thao Nguyen and comedian Demetri Martin for a program called “In the Dark.”
Even on stage, he says, the Radiolab vibe remains intact, “except that we’re standing there in our actual bodies instead of disembodied in your ear. We constantly bounce between scripted and improv, argumentative and confessional, just like we do in the podcast. But there’s definitely a difference. Sometimes when Krul and I are bantering in the studio, I get so into it that I forget that anyone else exists in the world. That doesn’t happen on stage, with 2,000 people staring at us. Still, there are times when the room feels very small, almost the size of our little studio at WNYC.”
Fri., June 29, 8 p.m., $37-$50, Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.