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Jad Abumrad: Reporting from the Edge of Science

Radiolab host Jad Abumrad delivers a 14 February plenary address at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Boston Atlantic Photography

The son of scientist and doctor, Radiolab host Jad Abumrad remembers playing after school with the mice in his mother’s biology lab. “And I would learn many years later, that probably moments later they were sacrificed to the cold-hearted endeavor of which you are all a part,” he told a laughing audience in a 14 February plenary lecture at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting.

But Abumrad admitted that his mother’s work studying a protein was incomprehensible to him—until she dropped the jargon-filled explanations and grabbed a dinner plate to act out the protein’s task.

“The highest thing that we can accomplish as a science communicator is not to be precise—although we should be,” said Abumrad. “It’s not to convey how much you know—although you should know that stuff. It is simply to share the discovery with the person across the table.”

Abumrad created Radiolab, a public radio and podcast program that delves into big questions in science and philosophy, with this creed in mind. Hosted with veteran reporter Robert Krulwich, the program has won numerous awards, including a 2010 Peabody Award and the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award in 2009.

In his address, Abumrad, a 2011 MacArthur Foundation recipient, talked about how he copes with—and embraces—“the strange tension that exists when you try to talk about science to nonscientists.” He compared his job to that of an island hopper, finding a way to move between nonscientific islands and scientific islands where, isolated by their expertise, the citizens have evolved a separate language that defines their world.

Throughout the talk, he played parts of Radiolab episodes on musical language, mortality, randomness and a budding mathematician’s moment of early wonder. The episodes illustrated some of the science communication goals of the Radiolab team: to find vivid, non-jargony nouns to stand in as the characters in a scientific story, to bring physicality to science explanations, and to offer experiences rather than explanations to their audience.

And they consult with many scientists to make sure they’re not going too far off-track. “It does put you into an interesting relationship with a scientist for a spell,” Abumrad said. “You go to these scientists and you know, and you know they know, that you are not there to be their friend, you are not there to be their advocate.”

“You are there to understand,” he continued. “And if they want to be understood, they will enter into a temporary partnership with you.”

Abumrad said science communicators too often focus on the recitation of science’s latest discoveries, a tack that he said “leaves the public weary” because there are always new and sometimes conflicting findings. He and his colleagues at Radiolab prefer to focus instead on the edge of what scientists have just learned, and all the unknowns and questions brought into relief by the new knowledge. “That’s where the action is, that’s where the interesting stories are,” he said.

“I would guess that every scientist who’s being honest will tell you that that’s where they live,” said Abumrad, who then played a recording of a conversation with his biologist mother, agreeing on this point. “They spend a lot of time looking out at all the questions, and all the things they don’t know yet, and they spend a lot of time being lost.”