Curiously Robert

in Face à Face/SciWorld/Theory of Creativity by

“A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom”, said Maria Papova. Going by that, it is only fair to say that Robert Krulwich is a good storyteller -one curious soul who learns and talks and writes about the wonders of science.

Starting his career as a journalist to cover politics and economics, he had his first brush with science while covering the story of identifying Huntington’s Chorea disease. It was then he met Milton Wexler, a psychoanalyst popular among Hollywood stars, who wanted to understand if his daughter and wife suffer from the same disease. It was in his pursuit that he invited young science stalwarts for parties in Los Angeles, among his usual Hollywood clients. Amidst those fun-filled activities in the unusual teaming of scientists and movie actors in LA, they went on to find the first ever genetic marker for Huntington’s Chorea back in 1983 when there was no PCR or fancy sequencing machines. Covering this story had Robert thinking that, unlike finance analysts and politicians (who he had reported about regularly until then), scientists were having the time of their lives being ‘curiously alive and busy.’  The excitement of learning the unknown was so contagious that Robert decided to be the ‘reporter of very little things’ for ABC News, so he could cover bacteria, genes, atoms and other little things which cannot be seen with the naked eyes. While his boss was not too keen on the whole idea, he did manage to do it. The desire to explore and learn about this completely different world had got into him. While he did not train in science (he studied law), he has learned science as a part of his job.

With his new found passion, he did a television show on string theory – something that he admits might have been the most difficult thing to show on television. His show went on after an hour long show that had cocktail waitresses and extra terrestrials (E.T.) having sex. And to his joy, he could keep the audience (3.5 million people) glued to the television screen, listening to him talking about a ‘squiggly wave’ that some scientists believed to be the fundamental particle of the universe. His boss was surprised that the audience that enjoyed the show about cocktail waitresses and E.T. would watch a show about Physics.  He believes that people can have seemingly contradictory ideas in a span of two hours. And that people will listen, if you have a good story to tell.

He makes stories that are ‘beautiful’.  While beauty is a subjective meditation, a musician knows she got it right when she listens to the notes. Likewise, he ‘just knows’ when he achieves the right balance and knows when a story will hook you and stay in your mind long after it has been told. He calls it ‘renting the brain space’.  This is what Robert and Jad Abumrad do at Radiolab. He and Jad use a system to arrive at a delicate balance of ‘beauty’ which is a combination of fun, learning, and the simplicity of storytelling. The method involves what Robert calls, ‘smarty and dummy edits.’ After working on a piece, researching it, writing, and recording; he turns to replaying it. During this exercise, one part of him knows the story and one does not. While one questions the choice of words, the other thinks about whether concept is understandable as a whole. After that, the story goes to someone who is an expert on the subject to make sure that the content is scientifically correct. Then the story is conveyed to a lay person who does not know about the subject, to specifically identify the parts that are not clear. Speaking of a lack of formal science training, he conceded that not understanding science could be a disadvantage, “because of all the things that you don’t know, you don’t know.”  The advantage, he thinks, is that he is closer to the audience, who is as naïve as him. It is through this process of multiple edits and re-edits, filtering the script multiple times by both the informed and uninformed that a right balance (the beauty?) is arrived. This process of learning brings surprises, wonder and joy for him and those elements are then successfully conveyed to the audience. From his experience at Radiolab, he knows if you describe something joyously, ‘it is hard to resist’.

Jad and Robert, hosts of Radiolab. (Photo Courtesy: WNYC)

He mentioned that it is easy to appeal to basic curiosity. He shared the experience of talking to the slightly disagreeable bunch of politicians in Virginia who believed that science is a conspiracy against their God. He questioned them how the cloud stays in the air, or why is the sky blue. How the big white puffy cloud that is so huge- so moist- and hence so heavy, staying up in the air with nothing holding it beneath. And then he prompted them to use their God-given mind to answer the puzzle. He observed, if you ask a question, people always want to know the answer.

Sun and clouds. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

He pointed out that much of the hostility to science comes from the fact that science language is inaccessible to the masses. People assume that they are not going to be able to understand it; they feel left out of the conversation and, hence, threatened by science. He revealed his tricks for sharing science with people who are suspicious of science. He mentioned that simple visualizations of science are particularly useful in these kinds of scenarios since not everyone can read scientific data. Like to an anti-vaxxer, you would present the data may be like this:

A representational graph that depicts the drop in disease prevalence after introduction of vaccine at Year 3

And then, adopt the other person’s view, conspire with them. Ask them why they think the government or the doctors would want to make so many people sick. And often such people are not able to come up with good arguments and then you can gently show the data again while generating doubts about their arguments. This, in his experience, opens up people’s minds to the idea of science, and educates them about the rational underpinnings of how nature works.

I wondered if religion could be the reason of hostility towards science, as religion and science are often perceived as exclusive of each other. Carl Sagan wrote in ‘The demon-haunted world, “the very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the cosmos…. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” I asked Robert’s opinion about these two seemingly contrasting ideas. He made a poignant observation, pointing out that faith is about seeking a closer relationship with the universe and seeking ‘enlightenment’. While faith and religion give you the feeling that you know certain things about the universe, science gives you a sense of being stupid. A scientist is often excited while standing next to a mystery, trying to understand it, devising tests of the universe, discovering some of the answers, which in turn opens up more questions. Hence, the practice of science, while trying to understand the universe, always keeps one feeling stupid and sometimes even wrong in light of the newly revealed data. Scientists are, he noted, like excited people watching the climax of a cricket match when it’s still not clear who will win. Religion is more about seeking peace and comfort and staying away from trouble. While they are different, he says, it is possible to practice the two together.

Creature in the woods. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

He opines that by provoking fundamental curiosity of the human mind, one can get people interested in science, irrespective of religious affiliations. He asserted that his job is not to convince anyone of anything. This is reminiscent of what Isaac Asimov said once, “Now, they may say that I believe evolution is true and I want everyone to believe that evolution is true. But I don’t want everyone to believe that evolution is true; I want them to study what we say about evolution and to decide for themselves.” This is exactly what Radiolab does!

During the discussion on hostility towards science, he also mentioned that science fiction, poetry, and literature prepare humans for newer ways of appreciating science. It is kind of interesting, he pointed out, that time travel is not mentioned in any ancient text in eastern or western culture, but H.G. Wells and his peers thought of it way back in 1850’s all of a sudden. They not only took us to the future but also got us back from the future.  Fast forward 150 years and now a seven-year-old dreams of traveling back in time and meeting dinosaurs. Time travel, now a part of human imagination, was not the case a few centuries ago! It (Science fiction) often operates within the confines of known boundaries of science, and trespasses from there to explore new ideas. The contribution of science fiction to the progress of science is celebrated well.  It is known that space travel, the internet, online learning, wasting time on the web (yes, I know you are reading this online) were predicted much before they happened by the likes of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke and Issac Asimov. Isaac Asimov said, “Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about things the way they are right now.”  Such literary artwork allows science to remain in public imagination. And Robert has clearly done his part by bringing science to everyone via his art of storytelling.

A portrait of Robert by the author

During my discussion with Robert, I could observe in action what Maria Papova said about storytelling. Through his experiences of storytelling, his observations have transcended knowledge and into wisdom. Stephen Hawking wondered, “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” As thinkers, let us take an infinitely small step closer to the answer, perhaps the ultimate wisdom.

Cover image: Curiosity. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

About the Author

Ipsa Jain is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Dr. Ananda Ghosh, Dr. Somdatta Karak and Anand Varma edited the article.

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