The Aural Disco Ball

by Will Rogers


I was driving the first time I listened to Radiolab’s episode on Sleep, and when the episode finished, I realized I had missed my turn a half-hour earlier.

I was new to Oakland, and I was also new to Radiolab. As I worked my way through their archive that summer, I got lost on a regular basis, driving on unfamiliar streets.

I didn’t mind -- I was also getting lost in great stories.

In this particular instance, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore one of the greatest mysteries of existence, and they do it with the hyper-produced-yet-ultra-informal sound that pervades their work. This is the sound that initially caught my ear in Radiolab.

I find it compelling that even with an everyday topic like sleep, Radiolab has a way of asking for all of my attention. Like a fast-paced movie, each moment of the story seems to say, “This is important; don’t miss this bit.” Consider the segment called “One Eye Open.”

In this portion, we’re learning about how (interestingly enough) many creatures tend to rest only half their brain at a time. Even mammals like dolphins and whales engage in what's called “unihemispheric sleep;” Jad aurally illustrates this type of sleep by simulating the slow brainwaves on the sleeping half of the brain (woooooowoooooowooooo) compared to the faster brainwaves of the waking half (wawawawaawwwww), “a six-year-old could figure it out,” says the scientist interviewed. It makes brainwaves feel simple and fun - every little sound is as enlivening as it is informative.

Suddenly they’re talking about ducks, who are also unihemispheric sleepers: “You’ve got to sleep, for whatever reason,” says Jad, “but sleep is dangerous.” A duck-like voice comes in saying “danger, danger, danger,” and fades under Jad’s voice while he keeps talking. This duck, even in the background, brings home the stress that a duck must constantly feel when trying to sleep in a world of predators. Listening to that silly voice, it makes total sense that ducks can literally sleep with one eye open.

The bonus effect of having a voice that says “danger, danger, danger” in the background is that it also keeps me on the alert; I want those ducks to be safe, and I feel like I MUST keep listening. The episode is jam-packed with these little moments that refuse to be ignored.

It’s like getting lost while looking at a flame - fire captivates you because it’s always moving, always alive, always new. Lots of things are mesmerizing like this (disco balls, ant hills, the water alongside a boat), but few things do it just through audio.

Just be careful not to get too mesmerized if you listen while driving, because you might lose track of the journey you were planning to take.

Sleep (60 min)
Produced in 2007 by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at Radiolab
especially the section called One Eye Open (20 min)


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