Jad Abumrad uses sound to explore science and share stories

Jad Abumradis the host and producer of WNYC’s Radiolab, a public radio series. He has a background in creative writing and music composition and has written music for film and produced documentaries for local and national public radio programs. He uses sound to explore ideas and share stories.

Jad Abumrad

Abumrad began his presentation by sharing sounds of miscellaneous things failing — an Epson printer that made a fantastic but terrible noise, his wife’s toy ray gun that short circuited, and a CD of Mozart skipping. “If you’ve heard Radio Lab, you know I’m obsessed with things breaking down and sliding off the rails.  I love the aesthetics of failure.”

Fusing sound with science, Abumrad described how a team of biologists discovered a way to watch genes make proteins. He then played a rhythmic, orderly sound of what he initially interpreted those genes might look like. But in fact, he explained, what those genes are actually doing sounds much more random and chaotic. What science has discovered is that we’re riddled with error.

Abumrad turned to crayfish and the way they avoid being eaten by predators. It turns out that a crayfish’s hairs function as deterrents. When a predator comes close, the crayfish’s hairs receive a signal. Two scientists wanted to know what was happening to those crayfish hairs. They discovered that there’s a noise inside those hairs – a static noise.

Jad Abumrad

He showed the audience what a sine wave looks and sounds like. If the peaks of the wave are tweaked in such a way that the sound is just under our hearing threshold, we can’t detect the sound. But if you add some static noise, the peaks get bumped up over into a threshold that’s audible. So to tie the sine wave back to the crayfish – it turned out the static sound the crayfish hairs produce helps to detect the noise of an oncoming predator.

This discovery had non-crayfish applications.  For example, a team of scientists at Boston University invented a way to help people with neuropathy, or numbness, in their feet by applying white noise to their soles. A person with sensitivity in their feet can use the white noise sole to gain greater feeling in their feet.

Next, Abumrad played the sound of a monkey’s neurons firing. He then played the sound of this monkey’s neurons as it was playing rock-paper-scissors, just at the moment when the monkey makes his choice. The neurons made a little outburst. The scientists studying this monkey noticed the randomness of the biology guiding this behavior.  The randomness of the mechanics that have to do with neurons firing is something scientists are just beginning to understand.

But according to Abumrad, some scientists believe that we are completely quantifiable and knowable, that they could know everything about us. “No! There’s more mystery. And I thank God. Because just like white noise is a smattering of frequencies, perhaps we can never be known.”

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