Bluegrass…for Wolves?

What kind of music do animals like? A woman who studies how non-human creatures go mad throws concerts for captive animals to try and enrich their lives, and researchers weigh in on how we can understand animal tastes for music with science. Plus, a bluegrass concert for 52 wolves.

Here’s a video of the concert featured in the audio story:

Music for Wolves: Black Prairie from Aubree Bernier-Clarke on Vimeo.

This episode was produced for PRX and Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen by Britt Wray in 2014. It was mixed for Transistor by Josh Swartz.

All By Myself…Maybe

“52 Hz” is the name given to a mysterious whale that vocalizes at a different frequency than other whales. Some refer to him as “The World’s Loneliest Whale,” but other scientists aren’t convinced that its unique call has left the whale isolated at all.

Craig and George went on a whale watch when they reported this story. See their photos and videos here.

This episode was produced for PRX & Transistor by Craig Shank and George Drake Jr. of Everything Sounds, and was mixed for Transistor by Josh Swartz.

Image from Shutterstock. Not 52 Hz.

Nautilus special: “To Save California, Read Dune”

The sci-fi epic of Dune takes place on a desert planet. There, the water in even a single tear is precious. Can Dune offer lessons for drought-stricken California of 2015?

This is a special episode featuring science magazine Nautilus.

This episode was produced for PRX and Nautilus by David Schulman.

The Indiana Jones of Math

Ken Golden isn’t your typical mathematician. He’s the Indiana Jones of Mathematics. He gets up from behind his desk, armed with mathematical theory and gets out into the world, having adventures and finding unifying math behind seemingly unconnected subjects.

In this episode, we find him out on the Arctic sea ice drawing on math developed for stealth technology to understand not only the ice, but the bones of people with osteoporosis.

This episode was produced by Ben Harden in 2014 for PRX’s STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

Image by: Amanda Kowalski

Forensics in Flames


Over the past 20 years, there’s been a revolution in the science of arson investigations. Many of the clues that had been used for decades to determine that a fire was not accidental, especially the analysis of burn patterns on walls and floors, have been proven to be false. Reporter Michael May looks closely at two deadly fires to explore the cutting edge of fire science.

For more on this case, here’s Dave Mann of the Texas Observer on NPR’s All Things Considered last year:

This episode was produced by Michael May in 2013 for PRX’s STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Josh Swartz.

Image from Shutterstock.

That Crime of the Month

What does it mean when a woman commits a crime and attributes her actions to PMS? We revisit the court case for — and the science behind — the first use of the “PMS defense” in this country, back in 1981. Featuring the true crime show, Criminal.

This episode was produced by Criminal — Phoebe Judge, Lauren Spohrer, and Eric Mennel — in 2014 for PRX’s STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

The Last of the Iron Lungs

As storms raged through Oklahoma in 2013, Martha Lillard waited them out from inside her iron lung. She is one of just dozens of polio survivors who still rely on their decades-old machines.

The Last of the Iron Lungs is a portrait of Martha, who contracted polio in 1953. To Martha, the 1940s iron lung is comfort and survival. As a researcher explains in the story, newer machines operate differently, forcing air into the lungs in a way that doesn’t feel right for iron lung patients.

Producer Julia Scott sent us some thoughts about her experience reporting this story:

“Martha’s story is fascinating enough on its own. It’s a radio producer’s dream to be able to capture the kinds of sounds no one will ever hear again – the mechanical bellows, pushing air through a machine older than Martha herself.

“Reporting this story made me realize how distant and abstracted polio has become in our national memory. Martha’s bedroom is dominated by her iron lung, a relic of history that most people my age may never even have heard of (I’m 32). To her, it’s a trusted companion and a lifelong friend. But the iron lung symbolized one of the most terrifying, unpredictable health epidemics of the 20th century. Archival photos like this one brought home the sheer scale of the outbreak – and the prospect of lifelong paralysis that thousands of people endured.

“One of the highlights of this project was being able to try out Martha’s iron lung – something I was a little scared to do. I laid down on the sliding cot, pushed my head through her foam neck collar and she sealed me in. It wasn’t claustrophobic, but I wasn’t counting on how hard it would be stop drawing breath and let the respirator take over pushing my diaphragm in and out, forcing air to whoosh into my throat. ‘Stop trying to breathe!’ Martha instructed. For her, lying in the iron lung is the most comfortable sensation in the world.

“Since the story has aired I’ve received emails from people whose families were touched by polio, grandfathers and great-aunts who spent time in an iron lung but graduated to breathing on their own. They see Martha’s story as part of the same continuum.”

This episode was reported and produced by Julia Scott. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

Image of Martha Lillard © Julia Scott.

Where Math and Mime Meet

Tim and Tanya Chartier present a
classic mime stance

Some things can be better left unsaid. Who would have thought that math could be one of them?

Tim Chartier has found a way to fuse his two great loves: math and mime. He and his wife strive to have their audiences become a part of the world that they’re creating on stage, and in so doing, the math becomes at once understandable and unforgettable.

Inside the Episode:

Producer Ari Daniel gives us an inside look on pulling this story together:

“The hardest thing about this story was how to bring math (a subject that most people aren’t especially fond of) and mime (a subject which, by definition, just doesn’t work without being able to see it) to life on the radio. I was fortunate that Tim is an incredible storyteller and communicator, and that he and his wife, Tanya, were so generous with their time and expertise when I visited them. In addition, my editor, Sean Cole, helped me improve this piece immensely, by focusing the storyline and adding humor and creative vitality. This piece is one of my favorites to have worked on.”

After you treat your ears to math and mime, feast your eyes on a video of one of Tim Chartier’s performances. It may not be the most conventional of combinations, but the product of math and mime is nothing short of amazing.

This episode was reported and produced by Ari Daniel under the name “Loving Math and Mime” in 2014 for PRX’S STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

This is Crohn’s Disease

1204_crohns-disease (1)-2Producer/reporter Jack Rodolico and his wife, Christina.

Told by the couple who lived it, this is a story of how Crohn’s disease can change lives when you least expect it. And it’s a story of how science can present multiple paths to — hopefully — relief or recovery.

What’s it like making a very personal radio piece about your spouse? Jack Rodolico shares it all in this special follow-up article.

For more on treatments for illnesses like Crohn’s and C. diff, listen to The Straight Poop. Our microbiologist host visits a fecal transplant bank north of Boston and shares some of the questions surrounding this experimental treatment.

This is Crohn’s Disease was reported and produced by Jack Rodolico in 2014 for PRX’S STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

Photo of Christina and Jack by Shelley Fajans.

Finding the Elusive Digital Stradivarius

A hammer tap to the bridge
— light as a dried pea —
helps Curtin capture an acoustic
instrument’s sound signature.

In music, everything seems to have another digital life. Pianists can play with different voicings on an electric keyboard. Guitarists can filter their instrument’s signal through a pedal or amp to create various effects. Why shouldn’t violinists be able to digitally harness the sound of a Stradivarius? For starters, it takes an incredible feat of engineering to make an authentic-sounding digital violin. Radio reporter (and violinist!) David Schulman takes us to visit a top violinmaker who has been working with a physicist and two engineers to create a prototype digital violin.

Inside the Episode:

Scientists say the violin is one of the hardest instruments to mimic. But MacArthur Award-winning violin maker Joseph Curtin has been working for several years with physicist Gabi Weinreich, along with sound engineer John Bell and industrial designer Alex Sobolev, to create a digital violin. They say its sound will be hard to tell from a recording of a Strad.

Data from 12 different locations let violinmaker Joseph Curtin digitize a violin’s sonic fingerprint.

Joseph Curtin and Alex Sobolev with prototypes of the digital violin

Joseph Curtin’s workbench, where he carves, builds and varnishes his acoustic instruments.

Closeup of some of the pigments and syses used in varnishes for finishing acoustic instruments.

Convolution Reverb samples:

Bonus — Meet David Schulman, the reporter of this story:

PRX was able to ask producer/reporter David Schulman about his experience making this audio story. He says,

“The chance to do this piece brought together several things I am deeply fascinated by — music, violins, sound-rich audio storytelling, and the nature of creativity & discovery.”

Something that didn’t make the final cut of the story, which sheds more light on why a digital Stradivarius is so difficult to engineer, is

“Weinreich’s research has shown that a violin’s sound is in fact deeply varied in the spatial dimension, and that, with each note, the physical power and direction of the overtones changes widely  — one likely reason why it’s hard to actually record an acoustic violin well.”

On convolution, the name of the technology developed for the digital Strad, David says,

“With it’s potential for alternate aural realities, [convolution] is a richly metaphorical area for scientists, artists and storytellers […] Imagine a situation in which  convolution impulse maps are the most vivid documentation remaining of a ransacked temple, or a lost Stradivarius.”

While he was gathering tape and doing interviews, David tells us that he was even able to play some of Curtin’s instruments, an added bonus for someone who is a musician on top of being a radio producer. Still, such an idyllic experience still was not without its challenges:

“The central challenge of the piece involved using demos to link several rich — though rather technical — ideas,and to arrive at a final comparison where you’d hear the digital Strad and an actual Strad, side by side.”

This episode was reported and produced by David Schulman in 2013 for PRX’S STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed by Erika Lantz.

Photos: David Schulman