Looking Ahead With The Wonders Of Krulwich

In the latest installment of our "Looking Ahead" series, NPR science correspondent and Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich talks about reporting on big ideas in imaginative ways, the old days at NPR and what he's wondering about today.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

ROBERT KRULWICH, BYLINE: Excuse me. Come over here for just a second.

VERTAMAE GROSVENOR: Oh, get away.

KRULWICH: Come over here.

GROSVENOR: You smell.

KRULWICH: Come, look, listen. I want you to buy a tax tip from me.

GROSVENOR: A what?

KRULWICH: A tax tip.

GROSVENOR: I don't have time for this.

KRULWICH: This is something you're never going to forget.

GROSVENOR: I guess I won't. I won't forget you, either.

KRULWICH: Pick a number from one to seven, OK? One to seven.

GROSVENOR: Four.

KRULWICH: OK, here's your box.

GROSVENOR: What am I supposed to do with this?

KRULWICH: Just open it up.

GROSVENOR: From which end?

KRULWICH: From the top. Just push your hand on it.

GROSVENOR: I don't believe this.

KRULWICH: Hi. I'm Robert Krulwich of National Public Radio, and thank you for choosing tax tip number four.

CONAN: From his days as an economics correspondent for NPR to his time at ABC and NBC, now on his Krulwich Wonders blog and WNYC's Radiolab, Robert Krulwich takes a distinctive approach to distinctive stories. Lately, he's pondered moths driving cars, the weirdness of our solar system and Silly Putty that eats magnets.

Is there a Krulwich story you will not forget? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on the program, NPR's Marilyn Geewax fills us in on how summer travel season shapes up and what that tells us about our economy. But first, we continue our series Looking Ahead with NPR science correspondent and Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich. He joins us from our bureau in New York.

And welcome back.

KRULWICH: Hi. Vertamae Grosvenor. That's who that was.

CONAN: That was Vertamae Grosvenor. Before we look ahead, I've been asking some of our guests about choices they made in the past. You, for example, did not go to school to study economics or communications or journalism or science. You went to law school.

KRULWICH: Right. And I was a history major before that. So, I don't know. It just shows you what you don't know is sometimes where you go. What you know is where you leave.

CONAN: Did you ever work as a lawyer?

KRULWICH: For a summer. I worked as a lawyer for a summer, and the lawyer that I was working for, whom I very much admired, took me into a room and said don't. And so I was a little bit shocked, because I'd been good at law school and everything, but he said that I was a little bit too self-absorbed and thought maybe that the clients would come second, as opposed to first. He reminded me, this is a service business. So I had this funny feeling that maybe he was right. So I got an Orange and Tan bus. Remember those?

CONAN: Sure.

KRULWICH: Yeah. And I went to - near West Point, to Harriman State Park, where - the Adirondack Trail goes through there. And I walked along the trail to a little rock. I remember this very specifically. It was some look-over rock, the Peter-something Rock. And I sat on the rock, and I could look out at the hills in front of me. And then very far in the distance, through a crack in the wall of the mountains, was the - two World Trade Center towers catching the afternoon sun.

And I thought to myself: So if I'm not good at this, what should I do? And I had, like, a little sitting-on-the-hill-trying-to-figure-that-out afternoon.

CONAN: And you figured it out? I'm not sure you did that afternoon.

KRULWICH: I don't know. I mean, I decided that I was a little bit of a slow processor, because in law school, everybody else could take all of the fact situations, which were very complicated - so instead of asking you lady hits man on the head with her purse, what should the man do? Something simple that - the kinds of problems that they had at Columbia Law School were: A fire engine in Vermont is just crossing the state line between Vermont and New Hampshire. In the fire engine are 13 firemen, six are redheads, four are blondes.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: The fire engine is hit sideways by Saudi diplomats driving in from Vermont who fall, some of them into New Hampshire, and some - at this point my brain is spilling over with - I can't contain all this information. So on the - everybody else's textbooks just had underlinings and highlighters. Mine had thousands of little cartoons of firemen, fire engines, state lines, in order for me just to keep these things in my head.

And I had all my life been - it's not like I'm dumb or anything, but I just couldn't - well, you know this, because you were my noun replacer for years.

CONAN: Yes.

KRULWICH: Yeah. But, anyway, I couldn't keep everything in my head. So I was - I got pretty good at explaining things to myself, and I thought on that, on the rock, well, maybe there's a business in that.

CONAN: I should explain that when I was a kid, my mother fell and hit her head, and after that, had difficulty remembering nouns. And the kids in our family were all good at prompting her with the nouns that she was looking for. You'd try to fill in. Robert has this - I don't think you fell on your head, Robert.

KRULWICH: I didn't fall on my head, but, like, I would say, look. So, I see you have a knife. I see you have a fork, and I see you have one of those long objects with the bowl at the end.

CONAN: And I would say spoon.

KRULWICH: Yes. Yes. And that was very useful. In fact, when you left New York City for - I wandered the world noun-less for, oh, several years.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You managed to do OK.

KRULWICH: Because there was nobody who could replace you in that particular department. I know that that wasn't your life ambition, but man, it was very useful to me.

CONAN: There was - this is, though, the little boy who went - ended up going to law school was the same little boy who pretended to be a broadcaster and snuck into the national political conventions.

KRULWICH: Yes, I did. My mom was a delegate, and so my sister and I, we could have gotten in with regular credentials. But it, for some reason, became very important to us to sneak into places where adults gathered. This was, like, our main form of play. And we also believe very much in lamination, and we thought that adults believed things that are laminated.

So I wrote NBC News for a pass to some TV show, and I got an envelope back with NBC, like in real - the real logo in a corner of the envelope.

CONAN: The real logo.

KRULWICH: Yeah. And then I went to Art Brown's supply store on 46th Street and got something called Letrasets, which were inked letters that you could squiggle with your pencil, and they would come out as if you were printing.

And so I had an NBC logo and what appeared to be, vaguely, a printing-like set of letters. And so I wrote myself and my sister a press pass, and then we triple laminated them.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: And you can only imagine us - she was nine, and I was 11 or something. But we didn't get into the Democratic National Convention with our, we thought, unfathomably good counterfeiting. But...

CONAN: What were you planning to do?

KRULWICH: Well, we were planning to act like adults, or move them around. Like a bunch of my friends used to do this, like this is an actual game that Manhattan kids - at least my Manhattan kids - would play. There was a hotel across from the Plaza Hotel, which - a big hotel, the...

CONAN: Sherry-Netherland, wasn't it?

KRULWICH: No, that's still there. This was one that was torn down, and now has the GM building on the - but whatever it was, it had Tammany Hall on the third floor, which meant that a political boss named Carmine Desapio sat in some throne room way in the back. Then there were some chamber rooms where you could go and maybe become a judge or something.

And then there was a foyer, and it had three elevators that you could come out of. So me and John Frolick(ph) and Stevie Silverblat(ph) and Billy Theodore(ph) and all my friends, we dressed in khaki pants and blue jackets, and we went out, and it was called move the adults.

And we got out of the elevator, looking sort of, I guess, like ushers, or so we thought. And then we would just politely ask everybody - and there were like 40, 50 people who wanted to be judges or fix tickets or whatever they do. We just would move them out of the corridor into cramped offices, all of them.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: And then we would look to the left and look to the right, and there were no adults, and we thought, well, good. We've done that. And we'd go home.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: Like, most people play touch football. No, we didn't do that.

CONAN: No, no, most - yeah go to Van Cortlandt Park and play touch football. Here's an email we have: I will forever remember Robert's sermon about Noah and other biblical people facing terrible situations, and how they could maintain their humanity. It made me laugh and cry. I've shared it with dozens of friends and family. That one from Marie, in Phoenix.

KRULWICH: Yeah. So that's an interesting thing, because on Radiolab, which is somewhat of a science show, I decided to do - we just, we got curious about why horrible things happen to very nice people. And there's no science explanation for that. That's just one of the universe's little puzzles, and it's usually handled with stories that people tell.

So the story that occurred to me was Isaac, poor Isaac, son of Abraham, who was told by his dad to go up to a mountain, and then his father tries - seems to try to kill him.

CONAN: Yeah, as Bob Dylan memorably told us.

KRULWICH: As Bob Dylan memorably told us. So we took - we just - I did a - it was almost like a sermon. And I just inhabited Isaac and just sort of wandered through that story, wondering - and for some reason the audience at Radiolab just turned - at least a bit of it - turned really vicious and saying, you know, how dare you put Bible stories on a science show.

And this is the thing about public radio in general. I think that the audience sometimes is much more conservative than we who do the deed. People are - well, they fall into routines, and they like those routines. And they like the thing that they expect to happen to happen again and again and again and again.

We who do this, however, like to fiddle around. And at one point I shared an office with - OK, here you go. (Unintelligible) Who's the guy at the end of "60 Minutes" who says I hate toast all the time?

CONAN: Andy Rooney.

KRULWICH: Yeah, OK. So, Andy Rooney and I shared an office, and Andy Rooney one day came in and said: You're never going to be famous. I said what? He said no, you're never going to be famous. That's quite clear. I said, well, why won't I be famous? He says because you can't do a short sentence. I said I can't what? He said you can't do a short sentence.

I said, I can do a short sentence. Tommy died. That's a short sentence. No, he says, you're not a short sentence. I said what do you mean? He says, I'm a short sentence: Andy Rooney, the guy who hates toast. What are you?

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: I said I'm a - I don't know. He said see, that's the problem.

CONAN: See, that's the problem. Yeah.

KRULWICH: Yeah, I am a corporate asset. CBS wants somebody who people can speak of briefly. He hates toast. That's brief. I'm an asset. You, you're nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: And I said to him, well, Andy, I don't want to be you. I don't want to be the guy who hates toast. I want to be a little of this and a little of that. But...

CONAN: Curmudgeon is the word you were looking for.

KRULWICH: Yeah, I guess - yeah, I guess that's right. So the lesson here, I think, is that sometimes managers of businesses like short sentences in their workers, and sometimes the audience likes short sentences. But we who do the job like to improvise and change and...

CONAN: Well, sometimes Robert Krulwich improvises on the Bible, and sometimes on, well, something other people hold in great reverence: opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KRULWICH: Our first act today closely follows these real-life events, and as the act opens, we're in the Italian section of Louisville, Kentucky, where Angelina - who also wants wall-to-wall carpet - learns that the interest rate is 18-and-a-half percent. The scene begins as she gasps in astonishment and resolves not to buy the carpet, (Italian spoken).

She and her friend Nina tell this to the carpet seller, Peregino(ph). Peregino is greatly disturbed, and says (Italian spoken) - the businessman's lament, is what he sings. I see we're now ready for the act to begin as Angelina learns that she cannot afford her carpet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: Robert Krulwich's master opus, "Rato Interesso." Is there a Robert Krulwich story you will not forget? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We're Looking Ahead - part of our series - today with Robert Krulwich, the co-host of WNYC's Radiolab and an NPR science correspondent. Here's an excerpt from a Krulwich story on MORNING EDITION in 1982 that explains the differences between Japanese and U.S. carmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KRULWICH: At 10:25, according to the factory schedule, 225 cars that need tape decks will be coming right down the line, followed by 225 cars that need eight-tracks. Therefore, what is on that truck is exactly synchronized to the factory schedule. That means that there are no big heaps of parts sitting around the Japanese factories.

And as you stand at your station, everything you need arrives just in time. That's the beauty of it. And as long as we're here, why don't I introduce you to a man who actually inserts radios in cars? He's a good friend. His name is Frank. He speaks perfect English.

Hey, Frankie, I'm wondering: Did those radios ever get here? I mean, I was waiting. Did they get here?

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Just in time.

KRULWICH: Oh, thank God.

SINATRA: (Singing) I found you just in time.

KRULWICH: I was worried. I was.

SINATRA: (Singing) Before you came, my time was running low.

KRULWICH: You know, we were scared they weren't going to come. I was worried all afternoon.

SINATRA: (Singing) I was lost.

KRULWICH: Me, too. We all were.

SINATRA: (Singing) The losing dice were tossed.

KRULWICH: I'd just about given up, really.

SINATRA: (Singing) My bridges all were crossed.

KRULWICH: Talk about it. Talk about it.

SINATRA: (Singing) Nowhere to go.

KRULWICH: Hey fellas, the radios are here, right now.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Now you're here, and now I...

KRULWICH: Now, this is an uncharacteristic display of emotion, but remember, these workers do the inspection and the assembly. They can stop the line. They run the system.

CONAN: So, I'm not only the host of this program, I'm one of Robert Krulwich's backup singers.

KRULWICH: You were one of the workers. I remember that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Is there a Krulwich piece you're not going to forget? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. John is on the line with us from - where are you in Wisconsin, John?

JOHN: Stockholm, just like Sweden. Yes.

CONAN: Stockholm, Wisconsin. OK.

JOHN: The most memorable story would have to be the ducks with the 14-inch penis - pardon me for that.

KRULWICH: Ah, yes.

CONAN: Wait a minute, I live near the water. Mallards fly by all the time. There is no such appendage.

KRULWICH: You have never been a lady duck, Neal. That's where you would learn the terrible, awful truth about drakes. They're really bad. Oh, they are bad. If you're having sex, if you're a duck having sex with a male duck, you would not believe what that duck's got on him. It's like an awfully, very - ducks rape their ladies, is what we did in that particular - that's the one you're referring to, right, Mr. Caller?

JOHN: Yes. It is. Yes.

KRULWICH: Yeah. Well, probably, we shouldn't go on too much about that because we will...

CONAN: This is a family show.

KRULWICH: There are ducks sighing all over radioland.

CONAN: Well, it's that time of the year.

KRULWICH: Well, yes, but there is - there was the revenge of the lady ducks, though, because they have - the shape of their vaginas is such that they can ruin the intentions of the evil ducks that misbehave. So there is a war going on anatomically in the duck world, which you'll have to go to our little science show to find out about.

CONAN: John, thanks. Well, I'm sorry I heard the thought, but thanks for the phone call.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Elaine(ph), and Elaine's on the line with us from Columbus.

ELAINE: Hi, I'm so happy to talk to you, Robert. About your other comment about Andy Rooney, you are, in fact, a one-line guy, because at our house, you're known as the guy that mom will listen to or watch whenever I just hear your name, because I know it's going to be wonderful.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: The guy I will listen to or watch whenever mom hears your name. That is not a short sentence. I survive as a longer-than-short sentence there.

ELAINE: You're the guy I'll always...

KRULWICH: No, no, no, don't correct it. I don't want to be the guy with the short sentence.

ELAINE: But I do remember something you did, and it's when you were on television. And maybe you can remember what it was, because I can't remember the details, but it always stuck with me. You were doing some description of economics or fiscal policy or something, and it had to do with using up lots of money or sucking up money and not - and you had...

KRULWICH: Oh, with a vacuum cleaner.

ELAINE: A dust buster and a vacuum cleaner.

KRULWICH: Yes. Well, I was coming off of my high with "Rato Interesso," the opera that Neal just played. So I decided I would do the vacuum cleaner version. And so a lot of the - in those days, I was very interested in trying to understand phrases that people who knew economics would use just matter-of -factly, but I never knew - like, money market. I knew what a supermarket was, and I knew, you know, what a other - like, a vegetable market was.

But a money market, I thought, well, what are there stalls with French money and German money. Or how does it work? So I would try to decode, and I would - when I got to television, I think that was one of the first pieces I did at CBS. And I said to my producer, Joe, who is an unusual fellow, but not this unusual. I said what I'll need for this is I'll need like a few reams of paper money and a very large vacuum cleaner. And he just stood there.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I know that look. I've had that look.

KRULWICH: Right. Right. So, I figured, well, if I'm going to go to CBS, I might as well go on my own terms, so they can fire me early. That'll get it over with.

CONAN: Elaine, I have to tell you, Robert did have one very good one-liner about his career in television. After he'd started, he said: You know, it's interesting. I've gone now to work at a television news network where they have a whole bunch of really smart people who sit around all day trying to figure out how to be dumb.

(LAUGHTER)

ELAINE: I believe it, because I always learn something when Robert shows me.

KRULWICH: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Elaine.

ELAINE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tonya(ph), Tonya with us from San Francisco.

TONYA: Yes, hi. So the program that I remember with so much joy, and that I still laugh hysterically when I think about it is the one about the brain's response to music that we've never been exposed to before, as in "The Rite of Spring," when there was the riot.

KRULWICH: Oh, yes. Yes.

TONYA: And I'm a cellist, and I get exposed to music - sometimes I have the misfortune or fortune of working with composers and trying to play their music for the first time. And the way that you had the neurons responding, like saying, you know, this is nothing I've ever heard before, and I am not prepared for this, I just think about it all the time, and it makes me laugh hysterically, because that's my response every time I'm confronted with a new piece.

(LAUGHTER)

TONYA: And it just made my entire year. I can't tell you.

KRULWICH: Oh thank you, yeah, that was about dissonance, and, yeah, what goes on in the brain when you hear something you've never heard before. We tried to figure out the anatomy of that, because there are - in "The Rite of Spring," that was a piece of music which was so upsetting to its early audiences, that they did actually have a riot.

And then I think well before Mickey Mouse played it on "Fantasia," and it's like it was kids' fare, almost a year or two after the riot in Paris, the composer of the piece was carried out, you know, with great huzzahs and cheers on the shoulders of the audience. So we wondered, like, how could something go from being so bad to so good so quickly? And that was the subject she's referring to.

CONAN: Tonya, thanks very much, and good luck with your next composer.

TONYA: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Thomas. Robert Krulwich has been my favorite science correspondent since I watched his "Brave New World" series. In my career as a high school science teacher, whenever I showed segments from that series, my classes would be mesmerized. I'm excited two of my broadcast heroes are together today. Well, that's very nice of you, Tom in Maryland.

KRULWICH: Well, that is nice. Yeah.

CONAN: And so why did you decide to - you'd been an economics correspondent. You did sort of the same thing in various jobs on TV. Why did you decide to go to science?

KRULWICH: I think I was getting a little bored. I mean, this must happen - I mean, you decided to cover baseball play to play, you know. Just - what you do is you, you don't want to become ordinary to yourself, really. And also, sometimes if you have a curious mind, you just get curious about new things. So I was on some ABC show, I was asked to do something which I had to learn genetics about.

And I found it really, really, really interesting. So I walked to Ted Koppel's office, into his office one day, and I said: I'd like to be your correspondent for very little things. He said, excuse me? I said, well, that's just my beat. I'll be the reporter for very little things, because you talk to big people all the time. I'll just talk to the very little things, who are making far more news than your very important people.

He said I don't know what you're talking about. I said, well, genes are very, very little, and viruses are very, very little, like Ebola viruses are very little, and influenza viruses are very, very little, and polio viruses are very, very little. And the A's and the C's and the T's and the G's that make up living things are very little, but they do - and we're learning about the very little.

He said, please leave.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: So I left, but I became the self - I didn't have the title, but I just became that, and I just stayed...

CONAN: The little things correspondent.

KRULWICH: And I became the little things correspondent. Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, that's interesting. All right, let's go to Sara(ph), and Sara's on the line with us from Buffalo.

SARA: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

SARA: So I love Radiolab, and my favorite segment that you had done was on the Russian presidents. Lenin was bald. Stalin was hairy.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: Yes. Yes, that was a singing one. I did notice that there was a pattern in baldness and hairiness in the sequence of leaders of the Soviet Union, and it was a pattern that had escaped notice, for some reason, by almost everyone else.

CONAN: Kremlinologists, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: Yes. You have lots of bald, bald, bald, bald, hairy, bald, bald, bald, bald, hairy. They're so - yes. And so then we put it into music. I'm a little bit sad sometimes that the music - in the early days at NPR, before there were any rules and before we were eminent and people listened to us and trusted us, nobody cares.

CONAN: ...lawyers, yeah.

KRULWICH: Then you could do things like sing your heart out, and there was like wonderful - not only did Neal do backup and we - most of us played mice, but we - there was a whole sequence of business - we called them business shorts. I did them with Susan Stamberg. The entire thing were just vaudeville routines.

We sang the entire sequence each week, and we did it in soft-shoe with imaginary dancing, you know, highly nasal voices, which we assumed would be roughly what a vaudevillian would do in 1919. But neither of us were old enough to have ever seen a vaudevillian performance, so it was our version of it.

And, you know, there were the usual angry banters, like why is the world so - get that smile off your face. But if you - you need to have like one out of 10 of those anyway, and otherwise nobody much cared. And that was - there was a freedom in that, a really wonderful freedom.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Sarah.

SARAH: Thank you. It's wonderful to speak with you.

CONAN: And, of course, no freedom to ever have a duet with a whale, except on "Radiolab."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KRULWICH: This is a - can I do this? You...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're asking me for permission?

KRULWICH: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Then no. No, you can't.

KRULWICH: Well, I'm not going to ask you then. I'm just doing it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good.

KRULWICH: After a variety of bird duets, in which I'm sure he frustrated many a thrush, he then did a duet with an entirely different animal.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMPBACK WHALE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What the? They were humpback whales. The best thing about that story is nobody knew they sang until the 1960s.

KRULWICH: Well, I'm - don't whales spend most of their time except for the tops of them underwater, so where would they be?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They do. Good point. I was broadcasting my clarinet through an underwater speaker...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...listening with headphones to what's coming out of an underwater microphone...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...and can hear this duet from down there, live clarinet and whale.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is so bizarre.

KRULWICH: What does the whale make of this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't speak whale.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Jay(ph) in Tulsa: I had the pleasure of driving Robert and...

KRULWICH: That was, by the way, this week. That - you're promising like a future-oriented interview?

CONAN: Yeah.

KRULWICH: You're now getting - we're now coming within minutes of the now.

CONAN: Of the now. We are. We're almost out of time. But anyway...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...I wanted to read this email: I had the pleasure of driving Robert and John Hockenberry in my Humvee when they came to Fort Irwin, California, in 1994.

KRULWICH: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: They were doing a story on the training at Mojave Desert base. The first thing I remember was when they arrived at our remote location late at night, they both looked up in the night sky and started discussing constellations. I recall Robert saying, there's my old friend Cassiopeia. I never forgot that.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: That was an amazing night because that's a part of the United States where planes aren't allowed to fly over it. So it's reserved for military training and whatever. So you can go out into the desert, and except for the coyotes, which are - will make you a little nervous, if you sleep out there, you can sit under the stars, and you can watch almost - it's almost like traffic.

You can see every satellite. So you see one coming up over the mountain over there, and it's hidden off. And then you see another one, and you go, oh, maybe they'll collide, although you don't know exactly where they are in relation from one to another. And it's the deepest sky I think I've ever seen, that sky.

CONAN: Let me ask you, speaking of the future - this is what we're doing.

KRULWICH: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: OK. All right. Now, you spend your life now thinking about - reading about science and thinking about science, which is about the human imagination, and it's about innovation. Does this make you optimistic?

KRULWICH: Yeah. I mean, almost. I mean, I think if we survive and if we, you know, if we sustain, yeah, I think...

CONAN: That's a big if there, Robert.

KRULWICH: Yes, it is. So that's sort of been a lot on my mind lately, which is, yes, I believe that the best parts of us are beyond fabulous. I think, you know, sometimes I think that a human brain may be one of the most miraculous things that there can be anywhere, you know, even in the universe.

However, you know, the brain is attached to a body, and the body is attached to a planet, and the planet is attached to cycles of carbon and whatever. And if that brain is not sufficiently wise to protect the things that are outside the brain, then the brain will be snuffed by the things that it - you know, that has - that have allowed it to be.

CONAN: By its own short attention span.

KRULWICH: By its own short attention span. So part of, I think, what "Radiolab" is and part of what just trying to, in a jolly way, be very serious is an attempt to say, hey, let's wake up before we - before it's, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: ...(unintelligible) The New Yorker cartoon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because the end is near.

KRULWICH: The end is near, yeah. So, yes, I am very hopeful if there is a brain around to be hopeful about, yes.

CONAN: And what is it that you are marveling about these days when you look at that inventive and wonderful part of that fantastic human brain?

KRULWICH: Well, 15 minutes ago, I was looking at a group of metronomes that were carefully arranged to be completely different one from the other. So tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tick, tick.

CONAN: Tick, tock, tick, tock, ticky, tick, tock.

KRULWICH: So it was a big field of badly arranged metronomes. And then the man lifted up this - they were all on a board. He lifted up the board and put them - set them gently on two Coke cans, so it could wobble a little bit. And then the movement of all those different metronomes translating through the board down to the Coke cans, which began to wiggle as well, and then coming back into the metronomes, everything came into alignment.

All 32 metronomes began to tick together at exactly the same moment. And there was one though down on the right, at the lower right, that wouldn't do it, you know? It was like the - it was the no-not-me metronome. It even managed to tick like all the others but in the opposite direction. And just before I walk into the studio, I was watching to see whether it would fall into alignment or not and I had to turn off the machine to come here. So what I am literally wondering about when I leave here is did the last no-no metronomes go yes-yes.

CONAN: We will have Robert send us an email and bring you up to date on that...

KRULWICH: I'll probably blog about it so you can just go to the blog and look at it there. So look out.

CONAN: The Krulwich Wonder's blog?

KRULWICH: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah - when you're doing a plug, you got to give the name.

KRULWICH: Oh right, sorry. The Krulwich Wonder's blog. Please look at it, krulwich dot something or other. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And there will be the story of the contrarian metronome.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Robert, as always, thank you very much for your time today.

KRULWICH: You're welcome.

CONAN: Up next, what summer air travel can tell us about where we and the U.S. economy are headed. Are your plans different from last year? Are you planning more air travel? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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