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Arts & Life


Word Association with Radiolab

Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab

John Rosman / OPB

There’s no other show quite like Radiolab. The series, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, has been running regularly since 2005 and puts out fewer than 10 hour-long episodes each year. The hosts tackle big questions about morality, time and the afterlife by giddily digging into heady topics such as science, religion, literature and philosophy. “At the core, it’s something to do with curiosity and wonder,” explains Abumrad, describing the show’s central philosophy.

Arts & Life attempted to explore how wonder works in the minds of Abumrad and Krulwich through a series of word associations. After a conversation with Think Out Loud, the two were given a list of 34 words ranging from David Bowie to an atom and everything in between. Abumrad and Krulwich each picked five words  (they both picked sweat) and the conversation went from there…


Jad Abumrad: Caterpillar fungus: It’s not entirely a plant; it’s a half plant, half animal. I just learned about it last night. I was talking with [Peter Zuckerman]. Have you ever heard of these things?

Robert Krulwich: I thought those were separate kingdoms…

JA: That’s what I thought, too. But apparently it’s some kind of caterpillar that lives in… What’s the mountain range where Mount Everest is?

RK: The Himalayas.

JA: The Himalayas. It lives in high-altitude places, at the base of the Himalayas. And…

RK: …And it’s dizzy, and it’s confused about what it is?

JA: It probably doesn’t know enough to be confused. But it gets confused because a spore gets on it, and burrows in it, and sprouts mushrooms on its back like little spikes. And then something happens, it gets weirder… but I forget the rest.


Robert Krulwich: The question is, why won’t it stay on the plate…

Krulwich shares his ongoing battle with keeping sauce on a plate and away from his light-colored clothes.



Jad Abumrad: Kurt Vonnegut had this thing he said about stories, which is… every character in your story should want something. Even if it’s a glass of water. They should want something from the first sentence… And I think that way about sweat in terms of storytelling. Every story should have sweat on it. The characters should be sweating. It’s some kind of struggle. The ideas themselves should sweat. The hosts negotiating the ideas should sweat in some way.

Robert Krulwich: I feel that it’s just interesting that I sweat under my arms, face and skin. But if I were a dog I would sweat through my tongue. I would just like to sweat like a dog for a day and then I would just go up to places and drip on them.

JA: You’re not a big ‘sweater,’ though.

RK: No, I’m not… It would be interesting to be a collie on a very, very warm day. And see what happens in my mouth.

JA: Those dogs when they pant… white milky drool dripping off their tongues. I feel so bad for the dogs and disgusted by them at the same time.


Jad Abumrad shares the first, and only, fistfight he’s ever been in. He was 10. It was at computer camp.



Robert Krulwich, host of Radiolab

John Rosman / OPB

Robert Krulwich: That’s a question… Where is the abyss? Let’s throw you off a boat. You start falling down. And then you’re in the ocean. Are you in the abyss yet? I don’t think so, ‘cause you have to go further. So you go further; now maybe you can’t see the sun so well. So you’re looking up and saying, ‘Am I in the abyss yet?’ And there’s no signs or anything saying, ‘Welcome to the abyss.’ In a James Cameron movie, a very large translucent animal comes…

Jad Abumrad: That was one of his better movies.

RK: Yeah.

JA: Until the end, then it falls apart.

RK: I agree with you… I think I’m in the abyss when the light from the sun vanishes completely.


Robert Krulwich: Shaving needn’t have an after.



Jad Abumrad: I was just telling [Robert] about this cool little fact I read yesterday on the plane about these beetles in Chile and Peru. Apparently the most sought-after red, throughout history, has been carmine because it’s this vibrant, bright, ecstatic red. It’s like the color of a Coke can, really, really bright… The main way it seems to happen [in nature] is that these little white beetles who munch on cacti… They infest the cacti in Chile to such a degree that they completely cover the thing like snow: fields and fields of cactus. And then these guys with blowers, blow all the little insects off the cactus and somehow gather them into a vat. And then, in a kind of genocide I could only imagine, with a giant pestle they crush all these little bugs. Because each bug, its blood is like this incredible scarlet color…

Clean Water

Jad Abumrad: What about the violence of a raindrop?

Robert Krulwich: (Laughs)

JA: I remember you saying that once…

RK: You love that phrase.

JA: I do. I think it’s a beautiful phrase.

RK: We were talking about the Grand Canyon one time, and I had read that the Grand Canyon is created by the violence of a raindrop, many raindrops. And Jad swooned.

JA: It’s a great phrase… What does it mean, though?

RK: It means that you have this soft limestone and sandstone sitting there in Colorado. The river comes through, and then it rains up in the mountains and the river gets roaring with rainwater and it comes and starts to carve…

JA: …The grooves

RK: Yeah. So that the canyon is essentially the sum of raindrops falling in the mountains…


Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich talk about shame, the personal nature of their show, and joy in uncertainty.


This article includes contributions from Think Out Loud’s Dave Blanchard.

Radiolab airs Wednesdays at 8 pm on OPB Radio. View broadcast schedule

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