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

Early Bloom

When University of Washington researcher David Rhoades discovered that plants could communicate with each other, he was laughed out of science. But now, three decades later, science is reconsidering.

His discovery came on the heels of the book The Secret Life of Plants, which claimed plants were sentient, emotional creatures with the ability to communicate telepathically with humans. It was a huge bestseller and Rhoades’ experiments sounded like they were straight from the book. His work was criticized, grant funding disappeared, and he eventually left science.

Today, however, Rhoades’ experiments have been replicated, and his theories confirmed. Scientists have found evidence that plants not only communicate with each other but also acknowledge kin, respond to sound waves, and share resources through networks of underground fungi.


Bonus! Hear how this radio story went from script to sound-designed mini-doc in this episode of the HowSound podcast:

For even more about the craft of radio storytelling — subscribe to HowSound right here.


Early Bloom was produced by Peter-Frick Wright and Robbie Carver of 30 Minutes West. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

The Next Generation of Galapagos Scientists

What motivates young people to become scientists? Meet Maricruz Jaramillo and Samoa Asigau, two young women scientists from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, whose professional aspirations have taken them to the Galapagos Islands. Science reporter Véronique LaCapra joined Mari and Samoa in the Galapagos, where they are studying a type of malaria that is affecting native bird populations.

001_Mari_and_SamoaMaricruz Jaramillo (standing) and Samoa Asigau wait for their ride back to the Charles Darwin Research Station after an early morning of catching birds in an agricultural area on Santa Cruz Island.

002_Male_yellow_warbler (1)Samoa holds a male yellow warbler that was caught in a mistnet. Each bird gets weighed and measured, and a small blood sample is taken from underneath one wing to test later for malaria.

004_Mari_measures_warblerMari measures the wing of a male yellow warbler. This species of warbler is endemic to the Galapagos.

006_Samoa_and_Mari_Media_LunaSamoa (left) and Mari look out over the mist-covered hillside at Media Luna, a peak about 2,000 feet above sea level on the island of Santa Cruz. A reddish, broad-leafed shrub called Miconia robinsoniana dominates the landscape.

008_Samoa_age_7 001_Mari_in_tree

Samoa (L) says growing up in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, she thought of herself as a “fancy city girl.” She is 7 years old in this family snapshot. Mari (R) has always loved being close to nature.

This episode was produced and reported by St. Louis Public Radio science reporter Véronique LaCapra in 2013 for our STEM Story Project. It was mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz. All photos (except childhood photos courtesty of the scientists) by Véronique LaCapra.

The Poison Squad: A Chemist’s Quest for Pure Food


Dining Room 2In the fall of 1902, twelve young men in suits regularly gathered for dinners in the basement of a government building in Washington, D.C. The men ate what they were served, even though they knew that their food was spiked with poison. The mastermind behind these experiments was Harvey Washington Wiley. Before you condemn him, though, you’d be surprised to know that you probably owe him a debt of gratitude. Incidentally, Wiley is the founding father of the Food and Drug Administration.

Inside the Episode:

PoisonSquadLogoThe intention of these experiments was not to induce digestive discomfort for its own sake. Rather, they were part of an extensive study on how chemical preservatives in food — before regulations existed — could harm human beings over time. You might cringe at what was once used to keep food “fresh.”

Producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni gave us a closer look inside the story. About diving deep into archival materials, she says,

“I spent hours [at the Library of Congress], reading thousands of [Wiley’s] letters and squinting at his tiny journals.  It is when you know every curve and squiggle of a man’s handwriting that you feel as though you’re starting to get to know him!”

One surprising fact that she discovered while researching the piece was that while Wiley’s experiments contributed so much to food regulation, today’s practices still leave something to be desired:

“…The FDA doesn’t really test food additives anymore.  There are more than five thousand additives commonly found in processed food and most of them haven’t been tested on animals and almost none (except for dietary supplements) have been tested on humans.”

Sruthi sent us some photographs of the Poison Squad, Wiley, and some (how shall I put this?) unconventional tools that were used during the experiments.

WilliamCarterwithWileyandPoisonSquad
William Carter with Wiley and the Poison Squad

 

Wiley Lab
Wiley in his lab

 

Lettershowinginterestinparticipating
A letter showing interest in participating

 

FecalDryingMachine
A fecal drying machine

“None but the brave can eat the fare.” Are you brave enough? Full serving of intrigue and radio in this piece. Bon appetit.

The Poison Squad won Best Radio & Podcast Media at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards in 2014.

The Poison Squad was produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni with sound design by Brendan Baker. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

All photos: FDA

A Rainbow of Noise


Everybody knows about white noise — that sound that comes out of your TV when it’s not working quite right. But there are many other colors of noise, too: pink, brown, blue, and purple. Marnie Chesterton brings us this story on the colorful science of sound.

Play with your own noisy rainbow — and learn more about each color — by clicking here:

Inside the Episode:

We meet Shelley, who uses pink noise to drown out the constant ringing in her head (tinnitus); Professor Trevor Cox at the Acoustic Engineering group at Salford explains why engineers need to classify different frequencies this way; and Cyrus Shahrad, electronic music producer, whose love of brown noise filters through into his work.


Producer/reporter Marnie Chesterton

We asked Marnie how she got interested in making a story about the science of sound.

She tells us that she came across this story idea after having heard about pink noise. She began an investigation sparked by her own curiosity about the spectrum of sound: “I started unpicking the stories of different colours of sound, mainly by talking about this topic to everyone I could think of,” she recounts. “After a few chats with various academics, I came to Professor Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at Salford University, who is obsessed with qualities of sound – reverb, echo.”


Prof. Trevor Cox

Through Trevor Cox, Chesterson got a first-hand look at an anechoic chamber, a whole room constructed to deaden any type of sound whatsoever. She describes the room as the most bizarre one she’s been in for a while: “The walls and ceiling are covered with these meter-long, dark grey foam spikes, and the floor, if you can call it that, is a mesh a bit like that of a trampoline. Through the holes in the floor, I could see down into darkness, maybe more foam spikes.”

Imagine a room that is so silent that the sounds seem to come from your own head. Chesterson explains, “The brain’s response to that kind of silence is to fill it with something, anything. And that’s what tinnitus is.”

If you’re interested in exploring the different bands of sound described in Chesterson’s story, you can play with the companion interactive rainbow of noise. Listen to which bands are used to treat tinnitus, to describe regime shifts in climate, to help sirens cut through background noise, and more.

A Rainbow of Noise was produced by Marnie Chesterton and mixed by Henry Hocking. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed by Erika Lantz.