Please Welcome Robert Krulwich to Phenomena!

krulwich_lgRobert Krulwich is a host of the show Radiolab, but he’s also a blogger, having written many posts over the years for National Public Radio. I’m delighted to welcome Robert to Phenomena, which is host to his new blog, “Curiously Krulwich.”

(Full disclosure: I’ve known Robert for a long time. We first met to hunt for autumn leaves in my neighborhood. And we’ve carried on a long-running conversation on a variety of topics such as whether parasites are terrible or awesome. Spoiler alert: they are awesome.)

To celebrate Robert’s arrival, I asked him a few questions about his blogging experiences:

You started out in television, then headed into radio. How did blogs make their way into your creative stream?

Like anything in life, first you hear a strange word, blog, and you wonder “What could that mean?” It sounds like something you’d find on a tugboat. Then, knocking around the web, I bumped into a few, and the ones I bumped into six years ago were gorgeously written, dazzlingly illustrated (bldgblog by Geoff Manaugh, Jason Kottke’s daily roundup at, Information is Beautiful from David McCandless, LoverofBeauty from I don’t know who, he never tells), each one wildly different from the other, yet all of them classy, dangerous, totally new to me, and I thought, how do I get in on this? I have story ideas all the time. I like to draw. I like to write. The fact that NPR (where I was at the time) is a radio network, and isn’t exactly into eyeball products, being more into ears, was no problem. They have a website and they let me launch a science based, sometimes meandering blog, Krulwich Wonders, where I wrote about history, animals, plants, puzzles, math, chemistry, music, art — and found a delightful audience of crabby, over-informed, sometimes charming, sometimes maddening readers who loved telling me how wrong I was or how right I was, while mailing me ideas that kept me going many times a week. It was so much fun. One time I even got a note from astronaut Neil Armstrong when I wondered out loud why he didn’t wander a larger patch of the moon when he visited up there. Here’s why, he barked back, sending me a long, fascinating letter that gave me goosebumps. So how’d I fall into blogging? I fell very, very happily, and when NPR downsized last year and let me go, I felt a little empty inside and wanted a new place to do it. This, I am happy to announce, is the place.

Does blogging feel the same as what you do on RadioLab, or does it feel like a different way to express yourself?

Well, the conversational tone is the same. I want to sound like myself. I don’t want what I do to be too studied, too formal, or too packaged. I want to sound like some guy who sits next to you on a train and turns out to be a good storyteller, and to your surprise (and, I’m hoping, delight) isn’t a bore. That’s how I try to be on the radio. That’s how I’ll try to be here. But, of course, there’s an obvious difference. On the radio (or the podcast) I’m playing with sound, and the thrill is to invent into your ear (which I do with my “genius” pal, Jad). On my blog, I’m playing with your eye. Every post I do is intentionally visual; it features something to look at; sometimes a video, sometimes a series of drawings, sometimes a photo, sometimes something I devise with friends that’s interactive and let’s you play with an idea. The important thing is that both Radiolab and the blog are designed to spill something you didn’t know into your head as intelligibly and as joyously and as carefully as I know how. That’s the goal; to make you learn something you didn’t think you needed or cared to know, but whoosh! Now you know it. That’s what I like to do.

You work in lots of artwork into your blog posts. What’s the process behind that? Do the artists come to you with ideas, or do you ask them to visualize something you want to write about?

I wish I had artists. When I started “Krulwich Wonders,” I did. I had a little budget and could hire people to help me. But those were the early days when managers were given play money to launch these adventures. The play period has long since ended and now I’m down to me, my box of colored pencils, my desk top scanner and an eraser. I can still call friends, and I do, and I will, but mostly I sit there thinking about, oh, I don’t know, “snail sex,” and I end up looking up pictures of snails, trying to find their genitalia (not the easiest thing to do if you’re not a snail) and sitting at my desk drawing one lopsided snail after another until, eventually, I get the thing right plausibly snaily enough and anatomically correct enough to publish. Then if my wife happens by, sees the drawing, and says, “Oh, what a nice pineapple,” I start over.

The ideas, by the way, come from whatever it is I’m wondering about.

What’s your favorite blog post so far? (Disclosure: my favorite is the one you wrote about the giant insects that were rediscovered on a remote island.)

Thanks, I liked that one too. But if I had to choose, I’d nominate one I wrote about why bees love hexagons, which you can find here. Or another about bees being totally and mysteriously absent from a cornfield, or this short meditation on absolutely nothing.  And, oh yes, a dance I posted that still makes me so happy I use it like alchohol whenever I’m gloomy. It’s here. 

What’s your plan for blogging from here on out?

To try things I’ve never tried before. To scare myself. To experiment with newfangled gifs, loops, slo-mo photography, and, if I dare, watercolor. To go wherever my curiosity takes me, and to take you (that’s right, I’m whispering in your ear, Carl Zimmer, you who know everything I know several weeks before I do), even you are coming with me.

My bags are packed.

A Blog by

Jonah Lehrer, Scientists, and the Nature of Truth

Last week the journalism world was buzzing about — guess who? — Jonah Lehrer. Yes, again. We knew about the science writer’s self-plagiarism and Bob-Dylan-quote fabrication. Last week a New York Magazine exposé by Boris Kachka claimed that Lehrer also deliberately misrepresented other people’s ideas.

Kachka’s piece led to some fascinating discussions about whether it’s possible to tell a science story that’s both riveting and fully accurate. Science journalist Carl Zimmer, for example, wrote a thoughtful, inspiring post about the messiness of science. All of the commentary left me wanting to hear more details from the scientists in Lehrer’s stories. Had they been misrepresented? If so, how? Were they upset? Did they complain?

Kachka and Zimmer zeroed in on a 2010 story about the scientific method that Lehrer wrote for the New Yorker. The story’s premise is clear from the title (“The Truth Wears Off”), the subtitle (“Is there something wrong with the scientific method?”), the nutgraf (“It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”), and the last few lines (“Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”). (more…)

A Blog by

Why More Scientists Should Tell Stories

Scientists aren’t very good at telling stories.

That’s a generalization, but true. I’m constantly cajoling scientists to tell me the story — hell, any story, any anecdote, any remotely narrative nugget — of their work. More scientists than you’d expect are good at simplifying a complicated technology or theory into layman’s terms. And many are good, sometimes too good, at distilling years of research into a few “bottom line” bullet points. But the scientist who tells a real story — where people do things in some kind of compelling sequence and ultimately arrive at something new — is rare.

So rare that last week I paid $10.70 to hear a few at an event called The Story Collider. Every month, half a dozen people take the stage in the basement of a popular Brooklyn bar. Each gets 10 to 15 minutes to entertain a packed audience of 120 beer-drinking hipsters with a tale of science. Story Collider’s mission is to demonstrate that science affects all of us, every day, and most of the performers aren’t scientists. But some are, and their stories don’t disappoint.

Last week, for example, evolutionary biologist Diane Kelly told us about her research on armadillo penises. In the early ’90s, as a graduate student at Duke University, in North Carolina, she wanted to study how penises work. (Erectile tissue has pretty unusual mechanical properties, after all.) But Kelly, a lifelong animal lover, hated the idea of killing animals for her project. She nearly fainted once when attempting to demonstrate how to euthanize a frog. So her clever, if extreme solution was to temporarily move to a place (Florida) that had a bounty of big-penis roadkill (armadillos).

Kelly’s tale was full of surprising twists and turns, culminating with a policeman and a bloody crotch. But its essence was about how she came to terms with the cold fact that her work would require some animals to die. Take a listen:

A Blog by

2011 Houdini Awards

I always thought of Harry Houdini as a master trickster, fooling his audience into believing something had happened when, in fact, it had not happened. That’s not true. Houdini’s tricks — like escaping from a locked packing crate after it had been thrown into New York’s East River — were real. His “magic” was that nobody could figure out how he pulled them off.

In the November 1925 issue of Popular Science, Houdini wrote an essay describing his obsession with the other kind of mystifiers: those who claim to have supernatural powers. Every day of his 35-year career, Houdini wrote, he had been thinking about psychics who supposedly communicate with the dead. He visited dozens of them and, as described at length in the essay, uncovered all of their lazy tricks. To give just one fun example, Houdini showed how mediums, during pitch-black seances, used trumpets controlled by their feet and mouths to produce voices that their audience believed to be ghosts.

Houdini did not consider himself a skeptic, but rather a public servant.

A Blog by

The Four Types of Scientists

In September 2010, I posted to my (now defunct) personal blog a cheeky theory: scientists can be categorized into four types, which roughly agree with some of the Myers-Briggs personality test buckets. I’ve re-posted it here, with a few updates and tweaks based on reader comments.

I took my first Myers-Briggs personality test in the seventh grade, on the one afternoon of the year my teacher had set aside for us to go ahead and choose a future fulfilling career already. We all sat down at a computer, answered a few hundred multiple-choice questions, and finally discovered which of the 16 types best fit our preferences.

I’m an ISTJ. In the system’s jargon, that’s ‘Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging.’ In plain English, the type is often referred to as the inspectors, the truth-tellers, the ‘Just the facts, Ma’am‘s.