“Part of being alive is to be surprised.” Robert Krulwich
Robert Krulwich, co-host of the Peabody award winning program RadioLab, spoke with Angela Massino of WCVE’s digital team. From exploring his need to answer life’s many questions to analyzing snail sex, Robert shared with Angela why it is so important to stay curious.
Angela Massino: From WCVE News I’m Angela Massino, with WCVE’s digital team. I’m here with Robert Krulwich, the co-host of Radiolab, WNYC’s Peabody Award winning program about big ideas.
Massino: I think that the station has asked me specifically to interview you, Robert, because I have been a huge fan since college. You are able to really connect with millennials and I was wondering why you think that is, and why do you think listeners connect so strongly with Radiolab in particular?
Robert Krulwich: At first, because the program is a kind of cross-generational, team thing - so the guy I work with, Jad, is about twenty-five years younger than me. And it was concerning to me, when we started, because I said, “Let’s chat about science,” and he said “Oh, okay, but can I put in my beats?” And I said “Absolutely.” So we did this kind of combo thing, and then I wondered like who would listen to this. For people who don’t know the program this is going to sound odd. So we tell you things that are hard perhaps, initially to think about, but while we play with it and talk about it and make it loud, make it soft, make it easy, make it grim, and make it all of these colors, I think what seems to happen is people can lean on the music, and it helps them hear the concepts. And it’s sort of a miracle.
Massino: I think one of the things that I’m very attracted to for Radiolab is that it makes the sciences accessible. What’s your secret, and how do you think parents and educators can really learn from this?
Krulwich: I think what happens is we are both are legitimately curious about the things we talk about. So this is not because we were trained in it, it’s not because we have read a lot of books about it, this is because questions occur and you just think “Hmm, I wonder what the answer to that is.” So it’s honestly curiousity, that’s the thing. So if you have a subject like “Why are animals kind to each other? If Darwinian evolution says it’s tooth and claw, survival of the fittest, struggle, struggle, struggle, then why would a bird give up the chance to make a new bird and just help it's parents raise some eggs? Like what’s going on with that bird? Is it a loser bird, or?” And those are more or less the terms we ask these questions in. And then we go to really smart people, but we don’t change our vocabulary, we’re just stupid in front of them. And then sometimes we get it all wrong, and we put the corrections in. So really what we’re modeling is ... so like let’s suppose you were brave enough - and it is an act of some bravery - brave enough to be curious. Then you would end up talking to people who are smarter than you about things you don’t understand in first blush, that you argued about constantly, and that you only get right on the third repetition after taking a singing break. You know that’s what we do: all of those things.
Massino: Since Radiolab is intended to explore human curiosity, can you tell us about a time that a story took a turn that really surprised or inspired you?
Krulwich: It is shocking or thrilling or simply sigh-worthy when you learn something. There was just a moment where we were trying to figure out where music comes from. And so we thought, “Well it maybe has something to do with gesture. Or maybe people, cave-people, listened to bird songs and thought, ‘Well we could do that.’ Or maybe they just took the ocean sounds, or babbling brooks, and tried to turn that into ... or maybe it was mommy speech, like maybe cave mommies went (cave mommy noises) and that was something musical?” But we didn’t know. So we found somebody that proposed to us that maybe music actually springs out of ordinary speech. So how would that work? And then she showed us something. And what she did was she took a tape that she made of an ordinary person talking in ordinary sentences. And she took a chunk of a sentence, “sometimes things behave so strangely,” was the phrase - and she looped it. (Sometimes things behave so strangely repeated 4 times) and so on. Once you listened to it you could hear there was something (da duh da duh da duh da duh repeated) Then we paused for awhile and then she played us back the original sentence from which that came, and it was so interesting! The person was talking but what he said matter-of-factly, “Sometimes things behave so strangely,” it sounded like (da duh da duh da duh da duh), like it leapt from speech into song. And it’s so surprising and so startling and so there. That is the sort of thing we love to do all the time. We love to create a situation where you can hear the moment of discovery for yourself, as if it was happening to you, which in that particular case, to everyone listening, it did. You could hear it happen.
Massino: So how does Radiolab find these stories that are often forgotten and left out of history and science books?
Krulwich: So if you get a subject in mind, like snail sex. So this is not something that would come up in ordinary conversation, but snails are hermaphrodites, so they have penises and they also have vaginas - they have both. So I was just thinking one day “Gosh that must be complicated. I mean it’s hard enough being a boy with a girl, like boys have boy urges girls have girl urges, but if you had both urges...” So I called up a lady who knew all about. She had a pet snail and she was also a bit of a snail scientist and she says “Well, have you ever seen snails having sex?” and I said “No.” and she said “Well you can Youtube it of course, it’s loaded.” and I said, “Is it?”. So I go and I watch these snails. They’re taking an enormous amount of time. One is crawling up towards the other, one’s looking down, one’s looking up. They shift positions, they back off, they come back again. There’s a slow, slow, slow dance going on and then she starts on the phone to narrate to me what’s going on. She says, “Well, let’s suppose one snail has a cold. And the other doesn’t. Well, the girl part of you says ‘I’m not going to expose my eggs to someone who is sick. Like I only have these few eggs, I’m not going to do that.’ On the other hand the boy part of me is thinking, ‘I’d love to have sex! I would love to do it, but I don’t want it to be done. Because I have to protect my eggs.’ The boy part of me says ‘Go ahead and do this if we can.’ And the other one is thinking everything in reverse. She says ‘I’ve got a cold, can I get away with this, etc.’” And so I suddenly felt like I was at a movie, you know, where there were two actors, Snail A and Snail B. There were four characters. And they were all up to various kinds of mischief. Now Jad, in this case, said, “I really don’t care about this at all. You have to do something else to make me care.” So I’ve never gotten snail sex on [air]. But I think the research that is required is first, you get on the phone and you find somebody. And then the somebody leads you to an article, and the article takes you to another article, and that article leads you to another body and so forth. And so you do days and days of looking into something. It starts with usually a dumb question, and by day three it’s usually pretty deep in. And you have to learn a lot of stuff, which you don’t necessarily expect to tell the audience. But you do need to know always what you aren’t saying, because if you know too little you could be wrong. And since we’re starting everything from scratch, pretty much, - and in recent years we’ve been doing a little more public affairs and a little bit less of science - so that’s even harder. It is a serious amount of research, always.
Massino: Have any stories uncovered something that you would rather not know, or perhaps left more questions than answers?
Krulwich: Yeah, sometimes the answers to simple questions get technical, and so we don’t want to know that. One time we asked, “What is it to be bad?” One of the ways we explored it was we found a man who invented fertilizer. He’d figured out how to put nitrogen into the ground so that you can feed your plants. There’s a lot of nitrogen in the air but it doesn’t go into the ground very easily. So he figured a way to get... Because the air is rich with nitrogen! The plants are hungry for nitrogen! So he said, “I figured out a way to bake what’s in the air and stick it in the ground.” An enormously wonderful thing to do. And what he did next, after having pretty much revolutionized feeding, is he invented mustard gas so that he could kill Russian soldiers up at the front for the Kaiser. And then kill Canadian soldiers and British soldiers and French soldiers and American soldiers, and the others. And he loved killing them. And he loved saving them with food. And we got interested in him. What kind of a person can be so both? I found that a very troubling exercise. Because it more or less confirmed what you know, which is that an angel has a dark spot; that a dark person, an evil person, has a touch of angel in them. It’s just that we are always a plurality, we’re never one thing. And that no matter how good a person is, they have potential to be bad, and vice versa. And to lose a fairytale world, where there were really kind and good people, to this much more probably realistic but sadder world, where everyone is a candidate for either, was, I found, very hard to do.
Massino: So what keeps you curious then?
Krulwich: Oh, my genes I think. My mom was one those people who could get on an escalator with a perfect stranger and - whatever it takes to get like one flight up to the women’s dress department or something, so maybe a thirty second ride? Maybe forty-five seconds? - by the time my mother got to the top, the woman next to her would say “So, I said to him, ‘If you want a divorce, you can have a divorce, but why would you want to get divorced to a soldier?’” How did my mother learn that much that quickly? But then I noticed my sister had it, and I guess I have it. I can just... I can not... Like my wife is a New York Times reporter. And she’s always afraid of running out. And I never seem to feel like I’m near the bottom of what I want to know.
Massino: Why should we stay curious then?
Krulwich: Why should you stay curious? Just because it’s more fun than being not. I mean, look, if you are the kind of person who thinks that they don’t want to know anything, that you’ve got your friends, you have your favorite sports, you have your favorite foods, you know everything you need to know you think, and then someone tells you something you didn’t know, I defy you to tell me that it if it’s something that’s either beautiful or funny or surprising, that you don’t get a little jolt of happiness. Because part of being alive is to be surprised. It’s deeply mysterious that we’re here at all, and that we have brains that can think about our being here at all, that we’re aware of death, that we’re aware of love, and that we feel these things (we feel the love anyway, we don’t feel the death). It is a deeply mysterious situation to be in. And so I just assume that everybody that has heard or show or everybody that hasn’t heard our show, which is most people, would be easily “gettable-to-able.” All we have to do is to tell them something that they didn’t know in a way that they can understand, in a way that makes them feel something: surprise, danger, excitement, astonishment, something. And I just think that’s part of being alive.