Apocalyptical: NPR’s Radiolab Live in Cleveland

Matthew Sprung, Staff Writer

In a world inundated with media, NPR’s popular program Radiolab offers something different. Whereas experts on television and the internet provide only ambiguous answers to our questions about science and technology, Radiolab presents us with clear answers by both highlighting and dissecting these big questions. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the show has won a Peabody Award and earned Abumrad a MacArthur “Genius” Grant — not bad for a pair of Oberlin alumni.

Radiolab’s live performance at the State Theater in Cleveland last Friday proved entertaining but failed to live up to the radio version. This is understandable, as Abumrad is notorious for his heavy editing of the radio version’s final product. Intricate music samples dance precisely around interviews as the hosts chime in at just the right moment, building a smooth narrative. The live shows try their best, and succeed in some ways, to capture the succinctness of the edited versions by featuring a live band and on-stage editing with prerecorded voiceovers. Yet the effect doesn’t quite match up to the meticulous standard Abumrad has set for himself.

Titled “Apocalyptical,” the show explored the concept of “endings” — where and when specific endings began, how they ended and our understanding of them since that point of finality. The first topic they discussed was dinosaurs, for whom the end began 66 million years ago when a meteor wiped out the entire cohort in only two hours. Yet, as the audience learned from their discussion, the meteors only hit one side of the earth, prompting another question: Why didn’t the dinosaurs on the other side of the earth survive? According to Krulwich, Abumrad and the experts they enlisted, the meteor struck with such force that pieces of glass from within it backfired into space and spread around the entire globe. These pieces of glass fell back to earth from all sides, apparently creating such intense heat in the process that “the blood inside the dinosaurs would have literally boiled,” causing instant death for all of them. At that point, a giant dinosaur puppet appeared on stage to receive a sympathetic embrace from Krulwich.

Yet there was a single species that managed to survive the meteor shower. This shrew-like animal, nicknamed the “hypothetical placental mammal” by scientists, was the oldest ancestor of humanity. Looking to choose a less scientific term for our distant ancestor, Radiolab polled listeners for a new name back in February. Much to the hosts’ dismay, listeners came up with “Schrëwdinger.” Krulwich and Abumrad were so disappointed with the choice that they gave the audience in Cleveland the chance to come up with a new name. At one point an audience member yelled out, “Dark Ninja Dinosaur,” prompting Abumrad to comment, “that must be an Obie out there.”

Radiolab considered the concept of the “origin of endings” from a cosmological standpoint. Technically, the two assessed, the universe has always existed through creation and growth and the recycling of matter. From this perspective, the concrete definition of an “ending” becomes obscured and reality can instead be seen as a series of continuous beginnings. Their exploration of this topic highlights what Radiolab does so well: placing apparent answers under a microscope of questions to reveal the existence of new and unexpected possibilities.

The closing segment of the show highlighted the power of personal conviction in overcoming perceived endings. They focused on the experiences of an actor whose career came to a halt after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Yet in reading Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, he found inspiration in the quote: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” His decision was to challenge the disease that could prove so crippling to his movement and speech by staging and acting in a one-night performance of the play in New York — a task many thought would be impossible. After nearly breaking down in fear just before the curtain rose, the actor managed to solicit a laugh from the audience in the first scene, which helped to spur him forward. At a high point of the play’s debut, the actor recounted a sensation of warmth and a moment in which he felt like he could finally control his own body again. Through incorporating emotional audio from the actor himself, Radiolab demonstrated that while some endings may be defined for us, we also have the power to reject them through our courage and perception. As for the actor, his successful performance was just a beginning.