JULIA LONGORIA: You’re listening…
JAD ABUMRAD: Listening…
JULIA LONGORIA: … To RADIOLAB.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: RADIOLAB.
JULIA LONGORIA: From …
JAD ABUMRAD: WNYC.
On the first day of my microbiology class last week, my professor asked if anyone had heard of Ignaz Semmelweis. My hand shot up in the air as I proudly declared that I did, in fact, know who Ignaz Semmelweis was. To that, my professor asked: “From the Radiolab podcast episode?” and when I responded with a resounding “YES,” we both shared a laugh about it. That moment was captured on the lecture recording (yes, I did go back and watch) and from what I can see, I was the only one to raise my hand.
The Radiolab episode the professor was referring to is called “Dispatch 2: Every Day is Ignaz Semmelweis Day.” Host Jad Abumrad introduces the episode through a phone call he had with Carl Zimmer, New York Times columnist and science writer, at the beginning of the pandemic. The name of Ignaz Semmelweis comes up in reference to one of Carl Zimmer’s tweets, in which he says it’s Ignaz Semmelweis Day everyday. Because Abumrad has not heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, the story begins as Zimmer and Abumrad put the pieces together, interspersed with interviews and their children interrupting the recording.
Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who introduced hand-washing in maternity wards as a measure to decrease maternal mortality caused by puerperal fever. The episode is a compelling account of the life and discoveries of Ignaz Semmelweis. Not only is the episode informative and the topic pertinent to recent events, but the casualness of the episode makes it very entertaining and easy to understand. At various points in the episode, both Zimmer and Abumrad are called to their parenting duties as their children’s voices are heard through the microphone: “Dad, what’s your password?”
Most Radiolab episodes follow a similar theme. Often, they start with a story that one host is conveying to the other and then spiral into an exploration of the topic —ranging from the fields of science to philosophy to politics and ethics — and interrupted by back-and-forth questions and funny remarks. The topics themselves are incredibly fascinating and though the concepts discussed can often be complicated and nuanced, the hosts simplify them in a way that makes the science inclusive and accessible. Because one of the hosts is new to the story and is hearing it for the first time alongside the listeners, their questions and reactions often echo those of the listeners which only adds to the community feel of the episode.
In one episode, “Kleptotherms,” host Lulu Miller walks her co-host Molly Webster through the topic of body temperature and thermal regulation by pretending each small story is a chapter in a book. The storytelling is casual, entertaining and easy to follow. During the 48-minute episode, listeners are left at the edge of their seats as they anticipate the next chapter in the larger story of the episode. The stories start with a species of snakes that sneak into a burrow of seabirds to steal their heat, never eating the birds but taking their body heat — a behavior called kleptothermy. Next, Miller introduces us to John whose experience with mental illness, among other things, was characterized by changes in his body’s temperature regulation. John’s story is punctuated by studies that investigate the effects of our mental state on our body’s internal temperature. In the episode, scientist Hans IJzerman conducted an experiment that demonstrated that when people feel rejected by a group, their body temperature physically drops. The episode ends with something we’ve all gotten used to since the start of the pandemic: the temperature gun. The hosts examine the validity of the temperature gun (surprise: it is not a good measure of temperature) as well as the widely-accepted “normal” body temperature of 98.6 degrees — which, depending on a multitude of factors relating to who you are and what kind of day you’re having, could indicate either a fever or hypothermia.
Through storytelling, not only are academic concepts simplified, but otherwise dry scientific concepts become personal and emotional. In “The Dirty Drug and The Ice Cream Tub,” reporter Dr. Avir Mitra recounts the story of the discovery of rapamycin, a drug used to facilitate the body’s acceptance of transplant organs. The story — filled with biochemistry and molecular biology that would have otherwise turned me away — was so riveting and personal that I was left in tears by the end of the episode.
The discovery of rapamycin starts with one man, Suren Sehgal. In true Radiolab fashion, the story of Sehgal immigrating to Canada is juxtaposed with the discovery of the island Rapa Nui, also called Eastern Island, located off the coast of Chile in the Pacific Ocean. Sehgal is involved in a medical expedition with other Canadian Scientists to study soil extracted from Eastern Island. Sehgal isolates one compound and calls it rapamycin, after the Rapa Nui Island where it was discovered. After moving to the U.S. and collaborating with different labs, rapamycin’s function is finally understood as an immunosuppressant, is FDA approved and starts being used in stent and transplant surgeries. The episode relays Sehgal’s visit to a children’s hospital where he sees firsthand the impact his discovery has on people’s lives.
Not only was the story itself heartwarming but his visit occurred at a time when Sehgal himself was battling stage four colon cancer and was given six months to live. Through accounts from both Sehgal’s wife and son, the listener is let in on Sehgal’s inner feelings and thoughts. Shortly after, Sehgal decides to try rapamycin to treat his cancer, and the cancer disappears. This part of the story is told by Sehgal’s wife in a very emotional recount. Acting as the scientist who is at the core of his identity, Seghal wants to determine it was the rapamycin that destroyed the cancer, so he stops taking it. Six months later, the cancer comes back and this time, Seghal refuses to take the medication and rather insists to “let nature take its course” despite pleas from his family. His son remembers: “He worked until the day he died. He — the day before he died, he was still writing a paper, in bed …” and it was at this point that I felt tears in my eyes. The episode left me not only with the knowledge of how rapamycin works on a molecular level but also with an emotional story of a scientist, father and husband whose passion and drive saved thousands of people beyond his own lifetime.
One episode that left me evaluating my beliefs on culture and identity was “Americanish,” in which Julia Langoria reports on the debate about the citizenship status of people born in American Samoa, a cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and New Zealand. At the beginning of the episode, when first introducing the debate at hand, I thought that the denial of citizenship to Samoans is extremely xenophobic, and that citizenship is the least that the U.S. could provide for the people of a land it had colonized. As the episode progressed, I realized that to some Samoans, gaining citizenship was not the kind of reparation that they needed, but was rather seen as further colonization of their identities. On one side of the debate were Samoans who thought that it was their constitutional right to be citizens of the United States like every other person born on U.S. territory. The other side denied birthright citizenship for the fear that it would endanger their established cultural practices. Even those who were denied rights such as marriage and land ownership based on their identities expressed their willingness to give those things up in order to protect their culture. I listened to this episode in October 2019, and it came at a time when I was struggling to accept cultural ideals that I felt threatened my personal freedoms. After the podcast, I recorded a voice memo on my phone where I repeated “I am perplexed and troubled” and struggled to find the words for how I was feeling.
That feeling of beautiful complexity was put into words when I listened to Abumrad’s most recent TedTalk in which he narrates his journey of arriving at what is now Radiolab. At the end of his talk, he explains:
“We need to be the bridge between those differences … you interrogate those differences, you hold them for as long as you can, until … something happens, something reveals itself. Story cannot end in difference. It’s got to end in revelation. In psychotherapy, there’s this idea called the third, which essentially goes like this. Typically, we think of ourselves as these autonomous units. I do something to you, you do something to me. But according to this theory, when two people come together and really commit to seeing each other, in that mutual act of recognition, they actually make something new … that is my calling … that every story I tell has got to find the third. That place where the things we hold as different resolve themselves into something new.”
***Some other episode recommendations: Breaking News, Breaking Bongo, The G:Series, Lebanon USA, Translation, Bringing Gamma Back Again, Rhino Hunter, The Ceremony, What’s Up Holmes, Red Herring and The Queen of Dying.
MiC Columnist Leen Sharba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.