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Is Radiolab a Science Show?

Friday, August 01, 2008 - 10:00 AM

We want your two cents. Give us your best argument for or against calling Radiolab a science show. Is it a show about science? Is it scientific in its approach? How would you describe it to a friend who's never heard an episode? Are there limitations to classifying it as a science show?


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Comments [59]


I noticed a pattern in Radiolab. It reminds of eastern style sciences or philosophy. It starts with proven science, then it brings up the flimsy unproven idea of that concept, and then it takes it one step further to a what if scenario. After that it poses the question, Could this be possible? The end result is a theory on a concept that sounds a lot like the unproven idea of eastern philosophies my parents used to tell me that they were adamant about but none of my friends thought held weight. The most prominent one that pops out is the one in "Loops" about thinking about thinking to disconect from your consciousness. It is pretty much the idea behind Meditation and the idea of mind over body. Which is widely believed in eastern cultures but unproven and therefore not as popular in western culture.

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Jan. 04 2009 11:25 AM

When I'm telling my uninitiated friends about RadioLab, I describe the show as "Bill Nye for Grown-Ups."

Maybe this description would only work for twenty-somethings who grew up on Bill Nye the Science Guy and Reading Rainbow, but it's hooked most of my friends so far!

Dec. 11 2008 12:38 PM
Greyson Twist

Science people want to call radio lab a culture show because it you look at science from a thousand feet in the air. So high up that you are removed from the trenches of theory, methods, results; and moving the dial that controls the guiding theory’s of fields one little dial click at a time. These are the dogmas that science is founded around and drives every grad student to cheap vodka. Culture and society people want to call it a science show because you talk to and interview science nerds. Frankly as a science geek who hates minutia and likes broad sweeping ideas, I don't care what you call it, it gets me excited about the painful day to day work I do and helps me show up to work every day, pick up my note pad and pipette and go to work.

Oct. 03 2008 01:10 PM
Ramona from Washington D.C.

I think Robert put it best when he gave that commencement speech about Caltech. Radio Lab is not a show about science in the sense that it appeals to the Isaac Newton's of us, but the Galileo's of us. It recalls those curiosities we had as children about the vast expanse that was the sky and why and how people grew old and what made cheerios so tasty. Radiolab follows the scientific method from start to finish (and I'm paraphrasing here): thought, question, discovery, epiphany, but without the ugly, three fold science presentation board and the Krebs cycle.

I think a big part of that is because most of the topics you choose to explore have some element of human interest. You couldn't get away with some of the things Ira Flatow does like talk about camping and plant growth because though that would appeal to those of us who grew up knowing every different species of dinosaur, those of us who lay in the grass and marveled at the photosynthesizing that went on around us would not be as interested. It's very populist.

Sep. 10 2008 10:16 PM

Yes. "Science Show" does not contain Radio Lab; it is not a superset of the show. In my opinion anyway... but the show is an ongoing conversation about life, and rational explanations of why things are. So, it contains science. I think without the science 'tag', I never would have found this wonderful, wonderful show. Any interesting discussion of or peripheral to science since Sagan is extremely hard to find, and many of us are on always the hunt for it. A label of "news" or "tech" is of much less value to me, though also pertain to the show.

Part of what is driving new media on the web is that mediums acknowledgment of complexity, and things like "tagging" instead simply one network executive's one word description of a show. But if you have to reduce to one word, "science" is a rare enough descriptor in the sea of podcasts to net new listeners that are likely to enjoy this... and isn't that the point? You needn't and shouldn't let the word limit or define your approach to the show or subjects tackled. Your post is an interesting question from this show because I get the feeling the show acknowledges the importance of synthesis between disciplines as important yet does not condescend in plumbing the depths of a particular specialty . That is very rare, and I love it. So I'd naturally assume science would apply as one word of many, but not solely define you.

Anyway keep up the great work... and since I just finished a marathon of random episodes, I noticed that in the right order they dovetail forming a larger free-ranging conversation from episode to episode. Intentional or not -- well done! Stay engaged with each other, bringing us into a REAL conversation, and keep asking 'WHY?'!

Thanks so much.

Aug. 28 2008 01:08 AM
Kendra Straub

I would describe it this way: "Have you ever had that WOAHhhh feeling? When you have a glimpse at how crazy and wonderful the world is? Well, Radiolab shows give you that feeling."

Aug. 11 2008 11:24 PM
Daniel Depperman

All-in-all it sounds like a show that presents some contemporary thinking about and information on scientific topics. When I first heard the show I was disappointed and thought after 5 minutes--when I turned it off--that it was a This American Life imitation. But, I wuz WRONG! Somehow wearing headphones and shovelling lava rock one Spring early sat afternoon I kept on listening. This was a good thing. I like your show. You guys do a good job and though you are nutty(which probably helps others keep on listening, since Americans haven't the stamina generally to focus on anything not sports, music or other 'entertainment')that isn't a bad thing.
Your show offers me the opportunity to actually hear some of the scientists I am curious about, and others who seem to be close to cutting edge.
I was taught however that eukaryotic(cells with nuclei, like yours and mine) cells have an average of 60 divisions before the telomeres play out, not 50 as you presented in the show on mortality which I just heard 2 days ago on KRCC. I'd prefer more, myself, so I'm going to have to go alter some of my genes(oh god, not again) so I can live 900 or so years. Hope I can still remember where I put my glasses.

Aug. 11 2008 02:42 PM

it's science made cool and funny! yes it's a science show. And probably one with a large following bc it's informative, well-researched, and well-edited. I love it because I crack up laughing at the dialogue b/w the bayside high & oberlin grads. also it doesn't make people feel dumb. Sometimes I wonder if i should have gone into science.

Aug. 11 2008 01:39 AM
Rod Macdonald

Whenever you touch on current science research, you do so in order to raise more profound issues. You do not merely report scientific discoveries or trends in science research.

I guess that places me close to Nathan's comment.

Aug. 10 2008 07:04 PM
Nathan in Missouri

I'd call this a Science and Philosophy Show. It is by far my favorite NPR show and I'm look forward to the next season.

The questions covered are extremely interesting and offer fundamental insights into the nature of reality and humanity.

Aug. 10 2008 11:34 AM
Peter G. D'Avigliano

Radio Lab show and science. Well, yes. That was my immediate thought. I will try to back that up with a loosely recollected definition of the spirit of science I recall from a biography of Issac Newton I read recently (Michael White). Where the definition of scientific truth is never static, but ever revising itself as the forces of empirical realities ply their magic. Frankly, I see all real Journalism as science in the same sense.

Aug. 08 2008 01:17 PM
Laurie Williamson

I think it's very scientific. I find the show fascinating, and can't get enough of it. What I love so much is that you guys choose topics that get right at the heart of what life is all about. These are the big questions, the deep questions -- but it's done so in a way that's fun and accessible to everyone. My mom is a medical technician who works at a specialty lab where they find extremely rare blood types for people who need donations -- she is one of the smartest and most scientifically-minded people I know. I made her a CD of RadioLab podcasts I downloaded (I donate annually to public radio so don't feel like I'm ripping you guys off) and she loved it and shared it with other people at her lab. Anyway, I think you guys are great. :D

Aug. 08 2008 11:41 AM
Does it matter?

Bottom line: Yes.

Off topic: Make more episodes, less feedback crap.

Aug. 08 2008 11:00 AM

I tell people that Radio Lab is a creative, scientific investigation of poetic or etherial issues: like what is the self?or what would happen if you lost your sense of touch? or what does it mean to sleep?

Aug. 07 2008 05:58 PM

I think your show is about discovery and thinking about things in ways we wouldn't have otherwise. A lot of the topics are about science, but that doesn't mean you have to label it a science show or even continue with science topics.

Foremost, radiolab is a leader in pioneering the medium of radio. You guys are very talented and could make many genres of radio more fascinating. Don't limit yourselves.

Aug. 07 2008 01:20 PM
Christina Bierling

I love Radio Lab for the same reasons that I love my job as a neuroscience nurse: On one level they are both about the science of things, brains and bodies and how it all works. But there is a deeper and more interesting layer under the science. Radio Lab captures so well the mystery and the magic of "science". I think that many people equate science with facts and figures and don't realize all of the wonder that scientific exploration encompasses. Radio Lab helps everyone, not just scientists, to tap into that wonder. Yes, it is a science show, in the best sense of the word.

Aug. 07 2008 09:37 AM

I've been telling all of my friends to check out this show, and the word science usually comes in at the end. "It's mostly about science" but that's after a longer discussion about what the show is. I usually say the word "Awe" long before Science. It's a show about Awe.

Aug. 06 2008 08:16 PM
Soledad Robledo

It's not a science show! That's the fascinating thing 'cause it is a mixture of questions, evidence and mystery.

Aug. 05 2008 08:10 PM
Alpago M. Kursat

How would be like a appropriate science radio program? Would it be like a scientist, reading us long calculation of a challenging scientific problem while he or she is solving them.

Without a doubt Radio Lab is a science program for reasons Robert Krulwich already mention on the speech that he gave in CalTech. Because, we need the story to relate. Without the narrative truth matters less and less.

Aug. 05 2008 06:49 PM

There is a lot to be said for calling Radiolab a 'science show.' Science being understood as a broad inquisitive approach to life. As tlr3 mentioned, so-called social sciences should be included in the category if we do want to apply this label to the show. Since the word 'science' probably comes from the Latin for knowledge, I'd vote for calling it a "science show."

Aug. 05 2008 05:38 PM
Julie Vaquera

How I would describe the show to a friend:

They take some sort of scientific principle or concept and explore it from several angles including scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually. I like it because it constantly challenges my view of the world. Every episode I’ve heard has taken some concept and completely turned my understanding of it upside down. I like that.

Aug. 05 2008 04:59 PM

How I would describe the show to a friend:

They take some sort of scientific principle or concept and explore it from several angles including scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually. I like it because it constantly challenges my view of the world. Every episode I've heard has taken some concept and completely turned my understanding of it upside down. I like that.

Aug. 05 2008 04:58 PM
Peter Hovering

To me, Radiolab resembles the best kind of scientific journalism I have ever come across.
It's storytelling at it's best. Like engaging friends or your old aunt in a spectacular story about 'how it really is' or 'have you ever thought of'. It's the way the show conveys the pure fascination of science that intrigues me.
I wish we had storytellers like these two guys in my country, Denmark - or for that matter, everywhere.
Globally, storytellers are needed very much - and this is very important, hence the initial remarks Robert had during his speech -
I can't agree more...
Keep up the spirit!

Aug. 05 2008 04:50 PM

Much of Radio Lab may not be considered "hard" science, but who cares? It is thought provoking and a hoot to listen to. My kids like it and enjoy discussing stuff that comes up...

Aug. 05 2008 01:55 PM

I agree with many of the commenters above ... Radiolab is about science, but it goes the extra mile to make connections among seemingly disparate disciplines.

Aug. 04 2008 10:32 PM

Radiolab does not set out to test and prove hypothesis regarding sleep, morality, laughter, etc. It does interview scientists and others, and bring their years of research to us, the audience, in a way we can understand and appreciate. The show is often about science, but the show is not itself science, and that's what makes it great.

Aug. 04 2008 04:45 PM

I'd call it a show of science stories. That's a bit like Tyler's idea of "conversational science," I suppose.

On the other hand, the first episode I listened to was about the Ring Cycle. Hardly the kind of thing one would expect from a science show.

Aug. 04 2008 08:42 AM
Jim Lew

Phenomenology is the word I throw at what you do. There is a bit of de-construction that goes on also. It is more a philosophical/scientific look at phenomena with out the certainty of looking for results. It's late so I sure hope my spelling is correct. Jim

Aug. 04 2008 03:47 AM
donny - boston, MA

I would probably describe it to a friend as a science show, but what I love about the approach is that it is about the wonderment of living. Science is usually the means to that end.

I also love the term "conversational science" that #7 Tyler had above. Absolutely brilliant description.

Aug. 03 2008 09:09 PM


that you will make.

Aug. 03 2008 01:34 PM

I think the best thing about Radiolab, is that it shows a connection between humans and our discoveries in the world of science. It shows that science isn't a cold mechanism like other paradigms choose to show it. It shows that there can be love, anger, despair, or some other emotion involved that drives science. In some ways science shows more compassion than other beliefs.

Should it be called a science show? No. It probably could be called a science lifestyle show but not a pure science show. A pure science show would probably have about 5 hours of pure numbers and theories to back up the 1 hour of regular show with full bibliographies.

I applaud Radiolab for doing what other mediums have totally failed to do such as PopSci, Omni, and PBS. You have humanized science and made it less something to be shied away from and more something to be in awe of, all around us.

Aug. 03 2008 01:33 PM

Radio lab is a show about how every day people should think about the world around them. It's a show that has a premise that the universe is knowable and actionable. These two things are the core of the scientific process. Ideally, this belief and process is applied in all domains (art, philosophy, home making, yard work, etc...) of human activity by men and women in all walks of life. Naturally, we can not all be as rigorous and thorough as scientists. Something that Radio Lab does very well is show us how we can all apply science as it bridges the gap between those whose profession is science while showing its listeners that asking questions and seeking to understand the world around them is far more entertaining, interesting, and useful than many realize. In my ideal world there would be many shows of the same genre as Radio Lab. Thank you for making a show that makes me young again. It transports me back to my youth when I was constantly amazed, excited, and optimistic about what lies ahead. If you can give yourself the same sense of life that the hosts and producers of Radio Lab have, you would wake up everyday and feel excitement about the new personal discoveries about the world around you.

Aug. 03 2008 01:30 PM

I think of it as a science show primarily. I see what you mean about this being a limiting idea, because shows like "War of the Worlds" don't go directly to science, but most of what I find rewarding in Radiolab is the science - when it opens it up, when it makes it seem at once understandable and mysterious. How's this: it's a show that explores the poetics of science. Maybe?

Aug. 03 2008 12:58 PM

I love the show for exactly what the first person said. it's interdisciplinary. i majored in science in college, but I was really an english major at heart. this is accessible and brilliant. I love you guys and I wish you could put out a show every week, but I'm willing to wait for anything you might produce.

I want to hear something about "end of all times conspiracy theories" though. give me something to make my little brother listen to.

i've heard your earlier podcasts, and what's great is the balance you have btw krulwich and abumrad. when i listen to this show, i say to myself, "this is it, this is what I want to show to everyone who believes in intelligent design--and it's not that bad, it's not ""I know everything that will and can happen"" stance.

the world does not seem complicated and interesting because of your show, it simply is. and if you can understand what I mean there, this isn't science in the same way. this isn't carl sagan either.

Aug. 03 2008 12:44 PM

You've got a thinking show, a science informed show, but not a science show. Once you label the show "science" then you're limited by the experimentally demonstrable. So much of the joy of Radiolab is about asking questions and observing the anecdotal.

I only wish more of the worlds thought was informed by science.

Aug. 03 2008 10:24 AM
Gabriel O

I have honed my description about Radiolab, as I frequently rave about it to family and friends. Radiolab is the cutting edge of radio. I tell them to watch it.. then I blink and correct my self... "'listen to it' as if you were watching it". I tell them it's my favorite new show... an heir of ThisAmericanLife of sorts... especially in it's fresh narrative style. Yes, the science seems to be an integral part of it (you could take it to other areas quite successfully)... but for me, Radiolab is just as much about the avant-garde sound-scape and narration as it is about the science. There is a strong existential bent and a gentle exploration of what it is to be a person. By the authority vested in me by nothing at all: I forbid you to mush this breakthrough program into the pigeon hole of "science show." Radiolab clearly falls into this category: " Existential-Neuropsychological Soundscape decorated with wearmhearted anticdotes. That's the ticket! Now, all that being said, if calling it a science show gets you more funding to make more shows, then by all means, this is a science show! Good luck, and keep the shows coming a quickly as possible

Aug. 03 2008 02:56 AM
Marcel Cairo

You called the show Radiolab for a reason. You wanted a place to experiment and play with the creative process of thinking.

Stop getting so serious, Jad. Don't over think it. Don't jump in bed with the materialist of the world who want to reduce everything to a cause and effect explanation. Keep the mystery going. Reject categorization.

Aug. 03 2008 12:32 AM

I think of it as a show about science. Certainly it discusses topics of interest to (at least some) scientists, and generally does so in what appears to be an unbiased manner.

That being said, to me science is *about* verifiability and being able to reproduce results - and it's either producing results to verify, or verifying (or disproving) results others have produced. In that sense, Radiolab is more like a survey than anything else: here's what some people have done and what they think it means; here's some links if you want more information. Survey publications are (I believe) necessary to the scientific process, but they aren't really themselves science.

Unlike some though, I don't see calling something "not a science" as an insult.

Aug. 02 2008 07:18 PM
Ian Bennett

I am fascinated by the production values and the range of issues discussed on RadioLab. Subliminally the program utilizes the power of the mind to 'fill in the gaps' and to make the correlations necessary to understand the discussions at hand, and for this reason, radio is the perfect vehicle for the eclectic nature of subject matter covered. Is it science? Most emphatically 'yes', because science is that body of knowledge which most satisfies human curiosity and the desire to know 'how things fit together'. Thank you for making the complex, the strange, the 'unthinkable' reachable, entertaining, and definitely satisfying. I am always left with a desire for 'more' knowledge at the end of every show. Thank you for being the intellectual catalyst for my own continued pursuits for more knowledge about the wide range of subjects which you cover. Without a doubt, this is one of the most innovative and certainly one of the best 'media' hours ever produced on any medium.

Aug. 02 2008 05:30 PM

What I love about Radio Lab is that it takes a very unique approach to science and shows more liberal arts minded people (like myself) this whole new fascinating world. The angles that Jad and Robert take to explore a topic are based in people in there journeys and experiences. I think that's what draws such a wide audience.

Aug. 02 2008 11:06 AM

I like to think of it as a show about questions.

RL seeks to find amazing answers to the questions we've asked since childhood.

Aug. 02 2008 09:04 AM
Lee B

When I think of science, I think of people who collect a vast amount of empiracal information, in the hopes of coming up with the best possible answer to a specific question. When I think of radiolab, I think of people who collect a small amount of the most interesting information, with the hopes of exploring, not answering, a very big question. I don't listen to Radiolab to hear the latest breakthroughs in science. I listen to remind myself of how fascinating the world is. I've learned a lot of interesting facts from listening to radiolab, but I would explain it to someone else by saying that it reminds you that the world is till mysterious, and the audio production is excellent. I would call it a show about big questions.

Aug. 02 2008 05:11 AM

I'm about to introduce a friend to radiolab.

My explanation was going to be that it sits between the intersection of science, philosophy, and the human experience.

Aug. 02 2008 02:34 AM
Jacqui P

I call it "pushing science". What I really love is the really human, and sometimes mystical, approach to those things that we often wonder about but don't know how to find out. I generally put everything aside for this show. If I were trying to describe it to a friend I would say, "I really love this show and think you should listen to it, but I really can't explain it. Let's discuss it after".

Aug. 01 2008 10:06 PM

I second the sentiments of #9. I was a little confused when I first heard it and was at a loss for how to categorize it. Then I started thinking about how much the show makes use of scientific studies and scientists in general, and realized *woah* I'm listening to a science show! Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Aug. 01 2008 07:03 PM
Solomon Turner

Yeah. radio lab is kind of a science show. It seems like you all scan somebody else's brain each episode, but I don't think you guys should call it a science show because everything's science. Science is all around us. It's life. Calling it a science show undermines all the other cool anecdotal aspects of your show and might scare some people away from trying it out. You should leave it undefined. I like not being abel to pin down the show and I like struggling to explain what Radiolab is. In the end I always just end up telling people to check it out for themselves.

Aug. 01 2008 06:08 PM
vernon t.

Absolutely Radio Lab is a science show. Science is not a set of technologies or a collection of knowledge, but a way of thinking about the world. Science is the freedom to imagine how the world might be and then trying to find out if the experience supports that imagined world. Science can indeed be a long treatise on advanced mathematics but it can also be my nine year-old son cutting channels in the dirt to see if the ants will cross it.

Carl Sagan once described science as a candle in the darkness; a tiny beacon of rationality in a world besieged by superstition and fear. Those who explain scientific discoveries in language the world can understand are doing science's most important job; taking that candle and giving others a light of their own.

There will always be a need for those who seek knowledge obsessively and delve deeply into the mysteries of the universe through complex mathematics and advanced technologies. But even greater is the need for those who disseminate the knowledge and methods to the masses. Without that the seeker of knowledge ceases to be a scientist and becomes little better than a priest.

Thank you to Robert and Jad for a truly great science show and for being scientists in the best possible definition of the word.

Aug. 01 2008 06:07 PM

No. I mean it's about the scientific inquiries into various topics, but I don't think of it as a science show. The show is more about the topics than about science as I hear it. It's a radio show that explores the everyday realities of our lives, those we think about often and those we rarely think about. The show then reveals the magic and wonder inherent in each. For what it's worth, I think of Robert as a science reporter, and Jad as a gifted radio host/producer. Thank you both for your work.

Aug. 01 2008 04:07 PM

Maybe I don't listen enough, but only the other day did I realize the science connection. Previously, I came here because the shows were well-produced and focused on topics that interested me. Now that I see that RadioLab highlights science, I will definitely visit more regularly.

Aug. 01 2008 03:19 PM

All depends how you define "Science Show" (duh ...)

It is certainly a show which a lot of times (but not always) discuss science issues. I think also it is a show which shows the curiosity of science - always trying to dig deeper and find new stuff.

But certainly the argumentation of the show is not scientific, and I wish it was. The show can jump to conclusions based on some sporadic researches, without properly representing the other possibilities, and without the due practicality and criticism.

Aug. 01 2008 03:15 PM

I would call it "Conversational Science", it is what a bunch of well-informed educated friends would sit around and talk about late into the night. It is absolutely fascinating. BTW- I found the radiolab gem after hearing "Emergency Krulwich".

Aug. 01 2008 02:51 PM
Joel Bass

Yes, I'd definitely call it a science show. It's about the wonder of science, from the way it touches our everyday lives, to the outermost frontiers of knowledge. I know some people would be turned off by the thought of listening to anything as dry and boring as "a science show" and other people would be turned off by calling something as groovy and playful as Radiolab "a science show," but they don't know what they're missing!

Aug. 01 2008 01:27 PM

I would say Radiolab is in the category of "popular science" and sometimes "philosophy". Science follows the scientific method, and is rigorously tested, and then critically evaluated by other scientists. Science is not scientists talking generally about their ideas.

Aug. 01 2008 12:46 PM

i think of it as a science show, but i think that you have to include *social* *sciences* in there to really make the category work.

when the show's not medical, biological, physical, etc., it's still usually looking at psychology, sociology, etc., and that's still science in my book. (but then, i'm a psych guy.)

Aug. 01 2008 12:02 PM

I must think of it that way, because when I googled "science podcasts", I really was expecting to see it right up front.

But then what is science, if not taking a second look at the world we live in and exploring it in new ways, gaining new insights?

Radio Lab does that really well.

Aug. 01 2008 11:46 AM
Dan Lurie

RadioLab is like Seed Magazine for radio. Science + Culture, and everywhere they intersect (which is everywhere!) Its the best Science show on radio, and the best non-science show on radio.

I think labeling Radiolab as a science show would stop certain new listeners from tuning in, a sort of self-selecting audience. The great thing about the show as it stands is that is sneaks up on people, and before they know it, they've learned something!

Aug. 01 2008 11:44 AM
Amanda in Iowa

What I love about Radiolab is that it's not *exactly* a science show. It's interdisciplinary. It plays games with boundaries. It may not always be definitively scientific in its approach, but that's part of what makes it so arresting.
When I recommend Radio Lab to others, I usually describe it as a cross between 'This American Life' and 'Nova.' Or maybe 'TAL' and 'Bill Nye the Science Guy.' Whatever it is, I can't get enough of it.

Aug. 01 2008 11:41 AM

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