In the final episode of Tiny Matters for 2022, Sam and Deboki chat with Latif Nasser about his experience as the co-host and director of research at Radiolab, his love of science history and telling surprising stories about everyday things, and much, much more.
Transcript of this Episode
Sam Jones: Hello! Sam here. If you’re listening to this episode the day it drops, then you know we are just a few days away from the end of 2022. I hope it has been a good year for you and whether it has been or not, I hope 2023 is even better. Deboki and I are so grateful to you, our listeners, for your support over the last year—which was the first year of Tiny Matters! This is our 25th full episode, which is very exciting and feels a little surreal. Thank you for all of the feedback and episode suggestions. As always, email@example.com, is the best way to reach us.
Ok, so, I’m pretty psyched about today’s episode, which is a conversation Deboki and I had with Latif Nasser. If you’re a podcast listener, you know Radiolab, which means you probably know Latif. He’s Radiolab’s director of research and co-host and is also an exec producer and host of the Netflix series Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything, where he travels around the globe exploring the surprising and intricate ways in which we are connected to each other, the world and the universe. It’s a super fun show, definitely check it out. Latif is also the exec producer of the investigative podcast The Other Latif.
It’s fair to say he does a lot of things, which made us even more grateful that we could steal some of his time to chat. I knew Latif a little bit going into this conversation—I interviewed him about his Netflix series for something totally unrelated to this a couple years ago, and a few months ago we were both on a panel together. I’m guessing that, after listening to this conversation, you’ll think “hey that Latif guy seems so smart, and nice, and encouraging” and I will tell you right now that is 100% true.
Alright, I will stop talking now. Let’s get to it.
Sam: Hi Latif. How are you?
Latif Nasser: I'm doing good. I'm doing good. I see you're in the requisite closet, Sam.
Sam: Yeah. Closet, storage, podcast recording studio. It's a one-stop shop.
Latif: Great. Great.
Deboki Chakravarti: I feel comparatively so awful. So I'm living in Norway for the moment, so been dealing with trying to figure out how to record in these rooms that are wood. Everything is bare. The minimalism is getting to me, audio-wise. I'm still figuring it out.
Sam: Latif, Deboki is right there. You're chatting with her. But I was going to say you haven't... Although we have never met in person, we've talked a couple of times.
Latif: Definitely. Yes.
Sam: But Deboki , I assume the two of you have not chatted-
Latif: No. I don't think so. Pleasure to meet you.
Deboki: It's nice to meet you too.
Sam: We're really happy that you're chatting with us today.
Latif: Thank you for having me. Thank you for inviting me. I felt so flattered by the invite.
Sam: That's very nice. We're sure that our listeners will be excited to hear from you as a science person, as a podcast person. You're the perfect combo, I think.
Latif: It's like double nerd credentials.
Sam: Yeah. That's perfect. The more credentials, the better in that department. Although I will be doing a little Latif elevator pitch for you at the beginning of the episode, I was thinking that maybe the best place to start is with a little bit about what you do now. Maybe starting with Radiolab.And then there will be a lot of questions throughout backtracking, things like that, if that's okay with you.
Sam: When I think about a really intricately produced show that finds this way of covering a huge range of topics in a way that's very interesting, even for topics that you might not immediately think, "Oh, I need to know about that." I think of Radiolab.
Latif: Oh, thank you.
Sam: So what does being one of the hosts of Radiolab entail? And you're also the director of research for Radiolab, is that true?
Latif: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Kind of. I feel like Radiolab, even though in terms of podcasts, it's a big podcast, in the sense that we have a pretty big staff. But still, I don't know, I think of it if it was a company or something, or if it was a production company or something like that, it's not that big. Everyone does a little bit of everything. There's definitely people who are specialized.
But for me, what I do for the show, the thing I love most is, I'm still a reporter. I pitch stories, I report stories. I do that and I've been doing that since I've been there, which is 10 years or something, or more. But then the other thing I do now, for the last year or two in my role as co-host, like I have more of an editorial voice on the show. I am the person who the reporters will come back with all the stuff they've reported out on these, as you say, completely random and obscure topics. And they'll come and dish to me what they found. I'm part of that process. So I've always been part of the editorial, in the early phase with the pitches and like, "Oh, what stories should we do? What story should we not do?" But now I'm more involved throughout. So I'm reporting my own stories, and then I'm an editorial voice. I almost feel like I'm a coach, like I'm partly a coach for the team, and just helping everyone else along with their stories and helping them get into the world.
Sam: What do you think some of the really important qualities of being a good host or for you, like you said you're sort of a team coach or something, but are there maybe things that you think you're really good at or need to work on that you found are just so important for this audio environment?
Latif: I love that you asked that in a way that's totally neutral. If I had a friend who was a host of a science podcast, if I did and they wanted to know about that, on the off chance. But yeah, I mean, I don't know. I feel like I might well ask you both the same question. But for me, I think one of the things that Radiolab is known for, from the beginning... Well first of all, we don't just do science topics, but even when we do science topics, the fun is it's like, "Oh, let's smash together things from different realms of science or, "Oh, this astronomer and this ant biologist are asking the same question."
So I think to me that's one thing I want to be able to do, is to make connections. And especially because as somebody who, like a lot of the reporters and producers, I mean, everyone's in on our pitch meetings. We have meetings where we update everybody about all the stories, but as the person who's there and listening to every reporter as they come in from their wild and wonderful trips, reporting trips all over the world and to different domains of science and here and there and there, to be the person who then gets to... And I'm working on my own stories and we all have lives and stuff, but it's like to try to make those connections. That's so fun.
And I don't know if I'm great at it, but it's the thing that I feel like that's at least a little bit of my value add. I'm like, "What can I actually bring here?" It's like, oh, I'm not the one out reporting a story, okay. So then if I'm not that person and I am just in the co-host chair, what can I actually bring here? And I think sometimes I'm just a highlighter, I'm like, "Great. Oh wow. Amazing. That's so cool," or, "I don't really get that." It's like I'm just a highlighter.
But then in other cases, I think it's like, I'm a connection maker. I'm like, "Oh, that reminds me of this other thing I heard in this other story that we're also doing right now that you would never have thought was connected, but actually in this really obscure weird specific way." They're about the exact same thing or that kind of thing. And that's also the fun of the job. I really enjoy. And I mean, you all do this too. You're jumping from topic to topic all the time. And there's something fun about that. But then also to be able to, especially like you were doing now at the end of the year, you're like, "Okay, what did I think about this year? What did I talk about? Yeah. Is there a bigger picture or is it just one random thing after another?"
Sam: Yeah. Because it does feel quite random at times where you're like, "All right, onto the next one" and then you look back like, "What happened for the last six months."
Latif: Sure. Sure. And then it's weird because this happens to us sometimes, I don't know if it happens to you all too, where people be like, "Wow, you really fixated on this question about did such and such thing" and you're like, "I am?"
Deboki: Now that you've been doing this for an extended period of time where you have a body of work to look back on, do you find yourself being drawn to particular connections or particular themes? Are there certain things that you've realized that you're especially interested in?
Latif: Yeah. Definitely. And some of them are really like... I'm really interested in poop. I'm so interested in poop. I'm really interested in nuclear weapons. I don't know why. I'm not even totally sure why. And part of it is, because when I was in grad school, I had a friend who studied the history of nuclear weapons, and everything he ever said was the most interesting thing. And now I'll forever be interested in nuclear weapons.
But there are also deeper things. I feel like when I'm looking for stories, and there are particular stories that I feel like had this quality. I did this story about this guy Oliver Sipple, and that was what made me think about this thing, which was, I feel like I'm interested in stories where if there's a person who's in a situation that nobody else has ever been in the history of humanity, it's like, "Oh wow." Not that I always can get that, but I'm trying for that. I'm specifically looking for that.
Or there's another thing which is, I love stories where, and this is personally and for the show too, I think. It's stories where something very, very mundane that we all know, that we all take for granted, all of a sudden becomes reawakened and you hear something about your fridge or the weed in your driveway or some random really, really mundane thing that you overlook every single day, and a story that'll make that thing come to life, where you can't see that thing again the same way. And you can't unhear that. Those are kinds of stories. I just love those. And those are the things I'm just looking for constantly.
Deboki: And it feels like poop and nuclear wetlands would lend themselves well to things like, once, you can't unknow.
Latif: Right, right. Yeah.
Sam: The stuff that's right under your nose. I love that, because it's again, these moments of I will never see that thing that I never thought about the same way. I'll actually notice at this time, and this is just very silly tangent, but were talking about it, it reminds me of the approach of certain comedians. I think of Jim Gaffigan, where he takes these very simple things where you would never think about it like a holiday, a Hot Pocket, some just silly thing. And then somehow creates all of these jokes or stories around it where now I can't go to a frozen food aisle, see a hot pocket and not think about that joke, anyways.
Latif: No, I think that's the point. That's the goal. I think about this at Radiolab, there's two things you can do. You can either take listeners to a new place, introduce them to a new thing that they've never seen before, a new place that they've never been. And it's like, "Oh, look at this new place." And hopefully there'll be something in that new place that reminds them of their normal life. Or you can do what is, I think actually the harder thing, which it's exactly what you say, it's take the thing that is already familiar to them and make it unfamiliar. It's going to the unfamiliar and making it familiar, or going to the familiar and making it unfamiliar. Those are the two moves.
And to me, I find going to the familiar thing and making it unfamiliar, I don't know, that pays off so much more for me because I see my fridge every day. And then just all of a sudden, it's there and I can't not remember that.
Deboki: So you have this background, you did, I think, your PhD in science history or history of science, yes.
Latif: Yeah, that's right.
Deboki: So I was really curious about how that affects the way that you investigate a story, how you approach telling it. And also, I'm really interested in how you approach reading the sources and thinking about how the sources that you're looking at fit together with the story you want to put together overall.
Latif: Yeah. It's funny because when you ask the question, it's looking backwards. But when I lived my life, it was going forward. So I never thought about, "Oh, a history of science degree would really help me become a journalist." So for me, I got really interested in the history of science because it was like, oh, here are stories about science. I love science. I love the ambition of science. I love the questions of science, but I don't love the lab work of science and the meticulousness. My brain can't handle all of that. And then I took a detour. I was interested in theater for a long time. Because I was like, "I love stories too, I really love stories." And then like, "I was history of science. I can get stories about science. Oh man, that's it. That's like perfect. That's the peanut butter and chocolate," or whatever. And then I'm allergic to peanut butter. I don't know why I would make that up.
Sam: Oh no.
Latif: So then I spent all this time in this field, the history of science, I really fell in love with the field. But what I constantly found frustrating was everybody was dead. All these people were dead. I got so interested in these dead people's stories, but they were all dead. So I couldn't talk to them about it. And sometimes it was fine because they had, as you say, sources, they have diaries or letters or autobiographies or this thing or that thing. And you can piece together, to some degree, who these people are and what they think. And then the partway through grad school is like, wait a second, there are other people who do this, but not for dead people but for alive people. And you can actually talk to them. And they're called science journalists. And it's the same thing. It's stories about science, but it's stories that are more present tense. And this was also a big revelation to me. I feel like from the way that I was taught science when I was younger where it was, nobody, not now, not then, nobody knows everything. Science isn't figured out. We're still all figuring it out. We may be an inch or two closer to the answer, but we're still mostly clueless.
So it felt like, oh, okay. So those people back then were clueless about the things they're clueless about. And now I'm just going to talk to people who are now just clueless about the things they're clueless about. But they happen to be alive and I can talk to them. It's very much the same thing. The medium is slightly different. The jargon and vernacular and the way of publishing telling those stories is a little bit different. And I prefer doing it the Radiolab that way. But yeah, to me, I think it's a lot of the same skills.
And in fact, maybe the one thing that I did pick up doing history of science that has really helped me as a present tense science journalist, is if the people are dead, having to be so resourceful and finding those sources, being able to go into a library or an archive or online or wherever, and just being ultra, finding tricks to find ways into stories that might not be obvious to other people. So much of the time I spent in grad school, I was in the library and developing those kinds of skills, those have really helped me out a lot. So it's the same work. It's like telling stories about science, telling stories about people who are trying to figure things out. But yeah, now they're alive. And even if they are alive and don't want to talk to me, maybe now I have some tricks that I can use to still find a way to tell that story.
Deboki: But if you could interview a dead scientist, who would it be?
Latif: Oh my God, there would be so many, there's a huge lineup of them.
Latif: Right now, just off the top of my head, one scientist I would love to interview would be... Do you know, Luther Burbank? Have you ever heard of Luther Burbank? He's like the Willy Wonka of fruits and vegetables. Basically, he would breed and cross all these different fruits and vegetables. It was magic. Imagine seeing for the first time a cactus without spikes. Or imagine seeing a seedless fruit for the first time. You'd be the seed is the whole point of the fruit. This is a monstrosity. He was the kind of person who was churning out all kinds of fruit and vegetable crosses, they dazzle people. Put him on a par with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He was a household name. He was world famous for being this. And the way he's most famous today is the Russett Burbank potato, which I think might be, is that the one? I'm not sure if that's the one that McDonald's uses for their french fries, but most people use it a lot. But that's his potato. He's famous. He made a cajillion different fruits and vegetables that nobody had ever heard, ever seen before.
Sam: I think that I remember this name. I remember this person, I think from Carl Zimmer's book about genetics, She Has Her Mother's Laugh, I'm pretty sure he goes into a chapter on that.
Latif: I love Carl Zimmer and his writing, I don't remember, but Luther Burbank may well be in there. And if anybody, I'm sure Carl Zimmer knows far more about Luther Burbank than I do.
Sam: So it sounds like, well because you said it, you love the audio media now. Have you always, when you first were working with Radiolab? Because like you mentioned, you've been a co-host now for, is it three years? Two?
Latif: Yeah. Time is such a, I don't know, I have no idea. But something like that maybe, yeah.
Sam: Okay. So there were many years leading up to it where you were not, were you always focused on that as some end goal or just goal? Or did you just fall into it a little bit?
Latif: Yeah, so it's funny because so many people I work with, and I don't know if you two have this feeling as well, which is are like, "Oh, I grew up listening to public radio. I love audio. It's so important to me." And they have these beautiful poetic things. And I subscribe to none of that. I'm like, "Oh, okay." I think to me the thing is about story. And I made a show for Netflix. I've done stuff in print, I've done stuff in-
Sam: Yeah, I want to talk to you about that after.
Latif: Sure. But to me, I think in general, all these mediums are more similar than they are different. You want the same thing. Whether you're picking up a novel or reading a tweet thread or watching a blockbuster movie or whatever it is, we all want the same things out of stories.
And it doesn't matter what form they take. I mean it does, but it doesn't really. So the thing that actually drew me to audio was Radiolab specifically. I heard this show and I wasn't like, oh, audio is so great. It was one of the first podcasts I ever heard. And the thing that drew me to it was like, "Oh, they're telling science stories that I, that are profound, that are original, that I haven't heard anywhere else, but that are also funny and poignant and powerful and asking big questions, but also making really dumb jokes." It just felt like I was like, "Whoa, what is this?" And it felt like it really chimed with my sensibility. So I became a fan of the show that way.
And then I soon after, because I first heard the show when I was a grad student studying the history of science. And I just called up, I basically emailed and then called the executive producer, Ellen Horn, and I was talking to her about one of the stories that I was writing about, something I was writing about that they had also done an episode on that I was really interested in. But then also I just started pitching her stories. I'm like, "Oh, there's this great story, there's this great story, there's this great story." Because I was like, I want to hear your take on it. How are you going to do it? What would you do with this great story?
So I feel like I got pulled into the world of audio through Radiolab, and that's keeping me here in a way. Not that I dislike audio or anything. There's so many people who are making stuff that I love. But to me, It's like equal opportunity. There's so many great docuseries, there's so many great magazine writers, there's so many great everything. And I want to try it all.
And maybe some stories, if you tell it this way in this medium because it's more visual, it might pop more. Or if you tell this one this way because it's not visual, it might pop more or whatever it is. But to me, I don't know. I'm not precious about audio. And I could be. There are things about it that are very beautiful that if you want me to wax poetic about it, I could wax poetic about it. But in general, I feel like all these mediums are more similar than they are different. And the things that matter are a good story, a good character, a mind blowing perspective shift, a fun, surprising plot twist. Those things matter more than whether you're hearing it, or reading it, or whether it's beautifully shot or whatever else.
Sam: Yeah. I actually have a question that relates to you pitching stories. So there was an episode of, I think it was the long form podcast that I listened to a while ago that you were on. And I remember being struck by this one thing that you said about how the hardest thing for you, at least when you were being interviewed, you said the hardest thing for you is oftentimes deciding what not to pitch because you find everything interesting. And that is definitely my personal issue, where I feel like I'll find so many things. I mean, this is why I did my PhD in academia. I did my PhD in biomedical science and I said, there's no way I can choose a niche because I like everything. And then I went into science journalism because that's right, I could talk about everything, but still I take it a little too far at time. So how do you personally pair back when you have a billion ideas?
Latif: That is still very much my problem. It's a problem in several stages. I'll find something. The other day I found this random report that the Department of Transportation made in 1977 where they predicted the future of transportation in this country. And I found it and I'm like, "This is so interesting." They were so wrong and it's so interesting how wrong they were. So then I'm like, "Okay, first of all, it's a thing I find interesting. Should I pitch it? Or what form should this take? Is this an episode of Radiolab? Is it multiple episodes of Radiolab? Is it a short film? Is it a tweet? Is it just a random thing that I will tell my friends, but it'll never be something more than that?" To me, it's like, oh, is this a thing? And even if it is a thing, what kind of a thing is it? Or how big of a thing is it? I constantly have that question. And basically, I am very lucky, especially at Radiolab, to have ruthless editors. And sometimes we call them-
Sam: Dream killers? No, I'm just kidding.
Latif: Dream killers is the way I would put it. That would be my framing. Curmudgeons in residents.
Sam: You need them though.
Latif: You need them. You need them. Especially if there are people like us who are like, "Oh, everything is interesting." They're like, "No, actually not everything is interesting. I'm so sorry to break the news to you."
And what's great is there are people who, they do not humor me. They really do not humor me. Most often it's our senior editor and there are other people on staff who play this role at different times. Where they're like, "Nah, I've heard this story before. Nah, it's too similar to this other thing. Nah, it's not that interesting. Why is that surprising? Oh yeah, no, I'm not interested." Because you only have so much time, you only have so much. And so why not just do the best things? Why not just do the things that everybody agrees on? Yeah. Anyway. But I feel like it's that dynamic.
So in a way I can be specialized in, let's find every possible interesting thing. I'm throwing up, what are those things? Those skeet frisbees, and then someone else is shooting down the boring ones. And that's good. And that's good. That's like a healthy ecosystem. Now for your show or it sounds like you don't, you have to be both of those people yourself. That's a much harder thing. And for me, also, I do this too for projects I do outside of Radiolab. My wife is that person, my friends are those people, my parents are that people. I'm just constantly telling stories to everybody and gauging every little facial movement or question. And probably reading way too deeply into them about, is this interesting? Is this actually surprising? Or are you saying this is surprising but it's not really surprising? Or is this actually surprising? I do that Strangers too. Anyway, yeah.
Sam: Oh no, I was going to say I send a lot of Slack messages, not just to Deboki , but other people who are in productions as well. And again, also, yeah, my husband, any friends or family who will listen to me. Yeah, I think you just find people. And I find a lot of people who I know will say, "Yeah, Sam, I truly could care less about that."
Latif: Those people are worth their weight in rubies. And to me also, it's funny because I feel like I've tried doing that over Slack, and I can't. I'm just paranoid that they're humoring me. So I'll need to pin someone down in person or even on a video chat or whatever. And I need to watch their face as I tell them the thing. It's a big thing. I'm going to invest maybe months of my life or whatever on this story. It has to really be good. And it has to be a thing that, the way that Robert Krulwich, who is one of my mentors who is a former Radiolab host, he would tell to me, it's like you're making a bouquet. So you're picking all these flowers. And then you see another flower and you look at the bouquet you already have and you're like, is that flower prettier? Or is this flower prettier?" I can pull this one, but then I have to... Which of these flowers? So you're doing this sussing out, you're doing this triage evaluating of, okay, what is the thing here that is actually worth my time? And the thing that I most want to get on the roof and shout about from the rooftops, because I think it's the thing that I want people to hear more than the other things.
Deboki: Well, and when we started out, we were talking about how you've made this transition into being in more of this coachy position compared to before. So have you found yourself having to be some version of a dream killer now that you didn't have to do before?
Latif: Yeah. Yeah. I am. It's funny. I do have to take that role in a way. And I'm not great at it. I feel like I'm still developing my skills at that. Also, it's proportional of the relationship that you have with that person. Especially if it's someone who you don't know that well, or especially if it's someone who's less experienced or an intern or this person or that person. You have to be much more careful because your dream killing can actually kill a dream. Not just for a story, but for people's self-esteem. And yeah, I don't know. So it's a very careful thing you got to do, but it's still a necessary part of the process, I think.
Sam: Yeah. I feel like in grad school, my dreams were killed so frequently that by the time I got to science journalism and someone said, "Oh, I'm not interested in that pitch or that's not interesting to me." I was like, "Okay." And then I would just move on to the next one. That has helped me, I think.
Latif: That's the way that it happened to me too. That first time when I called that executive producer Radiolab, I pitch on the phone. I must have pitched a dozen pitches on the phone right there the first time I had her, because I was like, there's no way I'm getting this woman on the phone ever again. I'm going to just tell her here's 12 pitches. I just rattled them off. And she rejected every one of them. And then I did it again. We did that several times. So I did get rejected a lot. And then you have to build a thicker skin about it. But it's interesting now because it's like, is there a way to do that that isn't so painful at first? Is there a way to do that that doesn't require someone to run into a brick wall 50 times?
Sam: So I do want to make sure that we talk about your Netflix series, Connected, before I let you go. And it's interesting because I almost interrupted you earlier, Latif, when you just kept saying connection, connection, Connected. I was like, oh, I could just [inaudible 00:28:37]. But it seems like with Radiolab, you're always trying to make these connections. Was that one of, or the driving force behind the creation of Connected the Netflix series?
Latif: Yeah. Yeah. I think to me, that that was definitely... Because by the time I made that show, or we're starting to cook up that show with my collaborator, Eric Osterholm, who I made that show with, and the production company, they're called Zero Point Zero. But as we were cooking that up, that idea, it was definitely something that I was drawing on. It was like, I'd already been a science journalist for years at that point. And I was like, oh, this is the refrain that you hear. It's always so much more connected than you anticipate. So that was in some way, part of it.
Also, part of it was... So one of my, and I'm not alone in this, I think, one of my favorite procrastination tools is Wikipedia. I just hang out on Wikipedia. I just jump around and noodle around on Wikipedia. When they came to me, this production company, and they were like, "Okay, we want to reinvent the science show. We want to do a whole new thing that nobody's done before. And do you have any ideas?" So in a way, the genesis of that, the whole structure of it is, okay, we're going to tell six seemingly disconnected, seemingly disparate stories from totally different places around the world, different fields of science. It's going to feel like you're on a Wikipedia jag where you're going here. And then you're like, "Huh, that what about that thing over there?" And then you jump and it feels disconnected. And then at the end it'll feel like even after you do six lily pad jumps, oh wait a second. It paid off in a whole big way that you didn't see coming. And that was the genesis of it. So in a way, it came from years of science reporting, but it also came from years of just noodling around on Wikipedia and being like, "This is pleasurable. This is so much more pleasurable than a science lecture." It's just a hop, hop, hop, hop, hop. And then there's, it all means something.
Sam: And you got to take on some of your favorite topics, right? I mean, you covered nuclear weapons.
Latif: Poop and nukes. Very much did. Yeah, exactly. I did.
Latif: Yeah. And that was so fun. It was so fun brainstorming for that show, because everything really is connected there. There's this beautiful concept which I don't know maybe you had heard of, but there was a professor of mine in grad school who was obsessed with it, his name is Hisa Kuriyama, and I think about things he's told me every day and he told me about this thing called Indra's web. And it's this idea of this web, this giant web that all things are in this web. Like a spider's web or something. And at each node of the spiderweb, there's like a jewel. If you look really closely at any one jewel, what you see or reflected in its facets, you see every other jewel in the web.
Sam: I love that.
Latif: And that is so beautiful to me. And I really do feel like it's the world in a grain of sand kind of idea. It's everything is in everything. Again, back to the problem you were saying before, then how do you choose which thing to do? So for me it was like, okay, poop. Poop is the thing. But really it was just this liberating thing where I was like, "Okay, I'm just going to try a few things. Let's see what happens." It was a joy. It was joy to work on that show and that spirit, that thesis and thesis of the show, which is Connected, it's in the title, everything is connected. I think that's a really beautiful and powerful idea. And it's maybe a cliche idea or maybe it's an obvious idea, but it's still a very, very powerful and beautiful idea that I think, yeah, I'll never get tired of.
Sam: Yeah. I feel like it's hard to, if the opportunities feel limitless, how could you really get tired of it? Is how you feel, about science in general. Right. But yeah. So about Connected or your experience on Connected, do you feel like being on camera made you appreciate audio more or did you develop an itch for doing more video work or both maybe?
Latif: Both. Both. Both, for sure.
Latif: Well first of all, because I mean just watch me, I'm a doofus on camera. I'm just nodding. And no, no, no, no. But that's fine. You are allowed to think not. You watch yourself and you're like, "Of course, I do radio." It just seems absurd the way I nod and the way I-
Sam: Yeah, I do really weird things with my hands and arms-
Latif: Totally, totally.
Sam: When I'm standing, my arms are all of a sudden like this and what is, put them down, what are you doing?
Latif: Yeah, totally. I'm not a TV person. My teeth are crooked. It's fine. It's totally fine. I'm not a TV person. It's okay. So that was one thing. But the other thing I was like, "Oh, but the trade off of that is you get to see these people's faces who I'm talking to and I'm like, "Oh, that's nice. I really like that."
But, actually that was a thing that made me value audio. And here's a way I can wax poetic about audio if you want. It made me realize how valuable it is to not see somebody. Our eyes are so judgmental. The very first frame of a person sitting in their office or whoever they are, you already have projected forward, I know what this person is going to say. You already make all of these assumptions about who they are. And then you realize, oh wait a second. Audio, you can sneak in anything. You can make people care about, people maybe would've otherwise written off. You can make things feel surprising. Halfway through an interview. You can be like, oh actually could you just tell me why did you get that weird lamp in the shape of a croissant or something? But it's been in the room the whole time, but you didn't know it all of a sudden. That's a surprise. Whereas on camera, that wouldn't be a surprise, or you have to frame it in a way to make it a surprise.
But I don't know, there's just certain things that you're like, oh, audio has a lot going for it. Another thing is that the way that these shoots happened, the interviews were so much more contrived in a way. Where it was like, okay, we're going to interview the scientist, but the scientist is actually in Cape Verde and the discovery was made in Portugal. And we need the background, so we need to fly the scientist to Portugal to do the thing. But the setting in Portugal, we only got the site permit for this amount of time. And then also the sun is in this location, but it's only going to be here for another 15 minutes. And we've been saving it. So you can meet this person for the first time on camera. So now go, you're about to talk to a scientist who you've never met. They're a scientist. And scientists don't get interviewed on camera that often. It's, they're super self-conscious about being on camera. Whatever we get in these 15 minutes, even though we've flown all over so many of us halfway across the world just to do this, we only have 15 minutes to do it. Okay, go.
So that versus a Radiolab where it's like, yeah, set up, maybe send someone a mic, or get them in a studio or whatever. And then it's like, okay. Well the thing we say at Radiolab is tape is cheap. Just talk, talk, talk, talk. It's fine. So the difference between that, where you can talk to someone in a studio, at some point when you're talking to someone in audio, we've had this experience, I don't know if you've had this experience too. The microphone fades away and then at some point, it's like a phone call or something. It's like you just are talking to people and then it can get conversational and fun. The camera never fades away. The camera is always there. People are so self-conscious…
Sam: You feel it. You feel it.
Latif: You feel it. Yeah. It's again, judgmental. Doing that show, and I want to do more tv, I want to do more on camera stuff, but it really made me value audio so much. And I'm like, "Oh, I'm so lucky. I didn't realize how lucky I was."
Sam: Yeah. Actually, one of the first things that a lot of people ask when I'm interviewing them for podcasts, is they make sure that-
Latif: No video.
Sam: The video is not being recorded. So of course we have it on and I say, oh no, don't worry. Not recording video, it's just to make the conversation flow a little more easily so that I don't cut you off or you don't cut me off, or whatever it might be. And they're like, "Whew," breathe a sigh of relief. "Okay, now let's do this." And then it just immediately, it's like a wall comes down.
Latif: Yeah. It's also so much harder for women, people with disabilities, people with minorities. There's so many different kinds of people who I feel like there's a extra layer of-
Deboki: The visibility.
Latif: Visibility. It attracts a lot of other negative stuff. And yeah, that's a real thing. And people are all really excited about if you ask them to talk about themselves and their work. And people tend to be really excited. But yeah, it's a lot different if you're filming them or if you're just taping them.
Deboki: I was having this weird epiphany, because I was going to ask you the experience of watching yourself on video versus audio. A lot of people, you have that to get over editing your own voice. And I was just also realizing as someone who started out with YouTube, I'm in this weird opposite situation where I'm actually much more comfortable hearing my voice if it's attached to my face.
Latif: Oh, funny.
Deboki: So I can watch a YouTube video of myself, but I have a really hard time listening, because I do podcasts and narration stuff where hearing my disembodied voice makes me so uncomfortable in a way that seeing it attached to my face does not.
Latif: Did you edit your own YouTube videos?
Deboki: Yes, and I was very bad at them, especially when I started. So it was a very cringey experience,
Latif: Cringey at the beginning, or cringey every time.
Deboki: I think now that I've gotten so used to it, I'm like, "Eh, it's all good." I know that this is the way that I am on camera. But the first few times especially you're so self-conscious with the camera where you're like, it's there. And then, I am looking at it. And also just feeling self-conscious about filming a YouTube video to begin with. Getting past that initial hurdle of I'm going to put myself on the internet in this way, it was hard.
Latif: Yeah. I feel like I know people who do it, one way they get over that is just by dissociating. You're like, "Okay, I'm Latif, but that's Latif, the character." Jad, again, my mentor and former Radiolab colleague, he would do his notes and he would be like, "J.A is really over the top of this moment," Jad Abumrad, that's him. But he would talk about it as if it's another person, and he would just dissociate. And then he could be more critical and objective about his own, or at least that's the idea or hope. But would you dissociate, it was another person or you still knew it was you?
Deboki: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't think I have. I think I got pretty used to the idea that that was me, which I think is part of what is uncomfortable about hearing the disembodied voice. There's something about that that feels like a different character, but in an uncomfortable way. Whereas me, myself. The thing that's interesting, is comparing it to times when I've done YouTube series where I'm directed, that's where I get so self-conscious, both about filming and watching, because I can tell that I am performing myself in a different way than I'm used to when I'm doing it for my own YouTube channel. So it's such a weird experience.
Latif: Yeah, no kidding. No kidding.
Sam: So Latif, other than, I mean, I feel like there's so many things that you might do that I'm just completely unaware of work-wise, but have, of course Radiolab connected, but then you also have the podcast, The Other Latif, and it's just the one season, correct? Is there?
Latif: Yeah. That's right. That's right. As of now, it is only one season.
Sam: Okay. Do you mind just giving listeners a brief synopsis of what it's about? What's your connection to it? What's your interest?
Latif: Yeah, it's so different from all the other stuff I've ever done. And we spend this whole time talking about science journalism. I think of myself in that way. And then what happened was, it was literally right on the cusp of when Donald Trump was being inaugurated in 2017. I found out on Twitter through this weird coincidence that there was a guy detained at Guantanamo Bay who had my exact name, first and last name. And in fact, his first name was a compound name that was a compound name of my first name and one of my middle names. And I was like, "What? That's so weird." It felt so specific. And nobody ever has my name. And it just felt so weird.
Deboki: I know that feeling.
Latif: Yes, exactly right.
Sam: I don't. I don't.
Latif: And then I just got curious about this guy and he had been at Guantanamo for, at that point, something like 14 or 15 years. And I was like, who is this guy? And nobody had really done any stories about him. And I was like, who is this guy? I want to know everything about him. And what I found initially through leaked DOD dossiers on him and stuff, was he was a really, really, the top explosives expert for Al-Qaeda. He was a really bad guy. And I was shocked by that. And then I got in touch with his lawyer and she said, "No, no, no. None of that is true. He was never in Al-Qaeda. It's all completely made up and he has never been charged, never had a trial. He's just been put away for 15 years based on nothing."
So that started a three year journey where I, along with the producer, Suzie Lechtenberg, and the producer Sarah Qari, the three of us just got obsessed with this guy and tried to figure out who is he. And what's his story. And how did he wind up in Guantanamo. And did he do any of the things that they said he did or not. And in a way, he became this lens to see through the whole history of the war on terror, Guantanamo Bay, what happened there, why, how it happened, how it happened the way that it did. And it was a very, very powerful... It's, I think easily, one of the most personal things I've ever done.
So then we came out with it as a miniseries at six episodes. And when we released that, he was still in Guantanamo. And then that was in 2020. And then last year in 2021, he got out. And nobody gets out of Guantanamo. It's very hard to get out of Guantanamo. So he got out, they sent him back to his home country of Morocco.
I'm used to science reporting, I'm used to being interested in a paper and then I call up a scientist and they're like, "Okay, I'm so excited. You want to talk to me, let me tell you all about this paper." This was more trying to pin down people in the military, people in the intelligence community, former alleged supposed terrorists. It was national security reporting. And I had never done anything like that. It was really, really hard. Everyone wanted to talk to me off the record or on background or this thing or that thing. Combing through legal documents, trying to, it was so different than everything that I was used to, but in a way I was just so, I don't know. It hit me in this personal way where I was like, this story literally has my name on it. I have to do this story. And that fire drove me through all of these seemingly getting all these legal documents. I had no idea what it was doing. The three of us didn't. We were a little unit from a science podcast, but we really did our best and I think we did reporting I'm really, really proud of.
Sam: Yeah, that's great. And it sounds like maybe you can't say or can, that there might be potentially more to come.
Latif: Yeah, I've been trying to interview him since he got out. I've still never heard his voice.
Sam: Okay. That was my next question. Yeah, yeah.
Latif: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So I'm trying to score an interview with him. He's not talked to anybody since he got out. And it's a very, very hard transition. He ended up being in there 2002 to 2021, so 19 years.
Sam: Oh wow.
Latif: And that's a really, really hard transition back. So he has been transitioning. And I'm leaving it to him, in the way in which he wants to engage, the way he wants to talk publicly, make his story public. So there's very delicate conversations going on around that. But yeah, that's where we are right now.
Deboki: Yeah. You talked about the practical... It being, in practice, really difficult to do compared to science reporting, but it also sounds like there's a set of emotional and ethical stakes attached to it as well that is there in some science reporting, but not in the same way.
Latif: Yeah. Yeah. Because I'm doing to these guys like I did, and hopefully will continue to do, in a weird way, the same things that are torturers were doing to them, which is asking them questions about their lives and their past. And following up, asking follow up questions. And one of the other former Guantanamo guys who have, I've gotten to know is [inaudible 00:47:17] incredible, I think is a Mandela level person, one of these incredible people. And interviewing him, he confessed, he's like, "Every time I talk to you, it is physiologically difficult for me to talk to you. And it hurts me to talk to you. And I still want to talk to you, but it hurts a lot." And that's very different from talking to a scientist about a press release that they put out. It's a totally different dynamic. It's so delicate. So we're trying to do this, but not in a extractive, careless way.
Sam: Right. Right. I mean, it sounds like the approach, it's very thoughtful, which is essential in these kinds of situations. Well, I do really hope that you have the opportunity to talk with him, because I would love to hear what he has to say.
Latif: Yeah, me too, man. I'm with you there. I have no idea. He listened to the series. I don't really know what he thought about it. Yeah, there's a million questions I have for him. He's on the Luther Burbank level of if I could talk to anybody, who would I want to talk to?
Sam: So Latif, unless there's something specific that we didn't ask you about that you want to talk about.
Latif: I'll ask you a question.
Sam: Oh, okay.
Latif: Because we're colleagues. We're working in the same-
Sam: No, it's great.
Latif: In the same little zone here. Which is, well first of all, just in general from your POV, is there anything that you're learning or you're looking around and thinking about that you want to share with us? In particular the thing I'm thinking about, and this is a thing I think about a lot, and maybe you all have better, I don't know, some wisdom here, which I think COVID made obvious in this field. This question of misinformation, disinformation, truth. How do you be honest, build trust? How do you do all of those things? I don't know, do you all have thoughts on any of these big things? Not to put you on the spot. But I don't know, these are things I think about all the time and you all are doing what we're doing in parallel and maybe you have thoughts about them.
Deboki: I'm trying to narrow down into something.
Latif: Yeah, no, obviously. Obviously there's a six part mini-series here you could do. But I'm just wondering, but just in the practical way that it's like, "Oh, here's a little thing that we've been doing. Actually, it changed everything. That we did this little thing and it made a huge difference." I don't know.
Sam: I would say that Deboki, correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like we've been having more conversations about transparency surrounding things that we absolutely don't know. And not just transparency, but actually including those things in episodes. I think kicking things off and thinking about a narrative-driven podcast, and you want to connect A to B, to C to D, and wrap it up in a nice bow. That was my initial approach creating this podcast. And I think that that has shifted just ever so slightly, but I've become more and more open to the, we don't know. Even though I've always known that I don't know, just being able to say to an audience, "We were trying to figure this thing out." We actually have an episode coming out in a few weeks where there is something where we talk about it. And we're like, "We cannot figure out the science behind this." We've reached out to this chemist and this geologist and this person, and we don't know. Does anyone know? Please contact us. So I guess this is a great time of, I think reflection for all journalists, all communicators to think about things that they could have done maybe better and things that they want to now carry with them, with their work that they do from here on out.
Latif: No, and that's exactly in the spirit that I asked the question, I think
Deboki: Related to that, I think I've been thinking a lot about, and actually it's two things that are closely related. One is just what is the value or what is the point of expertise? Because especially my memory of the early COVID days, were basically 50 different experts giving things that feel very contradictory, but it's because a lot of their expertise is in something narrow. So one of the challenges is how do we actually integrate these different areas of expertise to be able to create something that is useful, both as something maybe on a public policy level, but also something that is something we can communicate to people. Something that we can give to people in through whatever message. And also understanding that sometimes messages have to come in different ways. And then related to that, I think a thing I've been thinking a lot about in terms of how I approach writing, or I don't know, what I want science communication or writing to be about, is sometimes more about helping people understand different ways of thinking rather than necessarily having specific bits of knowledge.
I think, it's really exciting to learn specific things, but I've had to spend the past year or two, partly because of COVID, and then also just dealing with other things of just understanding the way that I think about the world around me, how I put different pieces of information together, what stories I want to be true, and how does that affect the way that I take in information, whether that's on social media or something more long form. I've had to process that for myself. So I've just been thinking about then... Obviously, I can't do that wholesale through my writing, but is that something I can accomplish through different projects that I have?
Sam: Deboki, I love how you said that about, "Am I interpreting this in a certain way because I want this story to be true." And yeah, absolutely. I think also just thinking about the stories about people, especially, I think that a lot of the racism reckoning that was going on in our country, it got a lot of people talking at the beginning of the pandemic and through now. And I think it had people talking a lot about who is telling what stories, and when is it appropriate for one person to be telling a story versus another person to be telling the story? What gives you the right to tell this person's story? Who are you interviewing about a topic?
I mean, it can be something just thinking about within the scientific academic space, I think a lot of times people deferring to older, Whiter, usually male, to talk about things, and really not give any of the spotlight to people who are younger, who are underrepresented in that field. And that has an impact. It means that being able to feature so in something, that's something they can put on a grant, that's something that they can put when they are applying to become a professor somewhere. I mean, it's also just a nice thing to be able to say, "Look, there's a person who looks like you that is doing this really cool thing and succeeding." And there's so much value in that as well. So I think, I'm not being very succinct here because I'm forming these thoughts as I'm speaking, but I think.
Latif: No, no, no, that's good.
Sam: I think for me at least, it's been an opportunity where I've had to do a lot of self-reflection in who am I talking to about different stories? Is this the right person to be talking to? Should I even be the one talking to them? And then also, who do I want to highlight? Who is never in the limelight that absolutely should be? Because I think that's a really good thing to be asking. Whether it's a massive organization, or a brand new documentary that's coming out or something. Or it's a tiny podcast like Tiny Matters, where we're thinking about who we want to interview for an episode. So I think, it can be really small scale with us, but it goes much bigger. Did any of that make sense?
Latif: No, it totally did. It totally did. And that is a pretty, I feel like even from my limited time in this field, a pretty seismic shift. Where when we started it was like, oh, okay, just get whatever seismologist, all you need is a seismologist. And it's like, okay, who are we going to get? And then what people would do is they would just be like, "Okay, let's look at another story that another exactly media outlet did. Oh, they quoted this person, just call that person. Great. Okay, good. We got the person who cares? It's locked." And now, there's so many other layers to it. That conversation is so much more, yeah, is delicate. It's who do we get to talk on this? Who is already talked about it? What have they said? How did they come across? Oh, is there another stakeholder here that we didn't? It's so much more complicated.
And to your point about you could help in their tenure review or whatever. Literally a day or two ago, we asked an expert who is a young immigrant, and she's like, "Oh, please let me know all about this because getting media exposure, it's far more important to my immigration application than the fact that I got my PhD from Yale," or whatever it is. Oh, the fact that I am actually out there speaking for the field, that means way more to whether I get to stay in this country or not.
Latif: And I was like, "Whoa. That's a lot of pressure. We don't know if we're going to use this interview or not." But still, you realize that it's like, oh, these aren't just neutral choices. These are choices that have high stakes for a lot of different reasons.
Sam: Bigger consequences than I think people realized. And I'm one of those people who didn't realize it as much. And I feel grateful, I guess that these conversations are coming up when I am still very new in this field. So that hopefully, I mean, know that I will continue to do this, but then hopefully I also encourage others as I move up, I don't know, or move forward. I don't know if there's a moving up, moving forward, whatever it may be. And there's people who are asking me question-
Latif: Tiny Matters. Then there's going to be show, Big Matters, there's just going to show Great Matters, and there's just going to be show Epic Enormous Matters.
Sam: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Sam: Yeah. So that's a great question though. That's a great question. Yeah.
Deboki: I was really curious if you had, I mean, again, I'm going backwards to your history of science background, but I was thinking about that because it's had times where I'm researching something, usually something history of microbiology for stuff I'm working on, and have gotten deep enough where I'm like, "Oh, I've hit the Nazis." We've gotten to the Nazi part of Yeah, yeah. That's the story. And yeah, I always have this anxiety of if I research the scientist, are they going to turn out to have been a eugenicist in some way? Trying to figure that out then. But we even see it today where in history, the connection between how we document science and something like nationalism, there's just all of these other factors that impact the science as it's done then, but then also how it's recorded.
Latif: Yeah, I mean that's just true. I think, I don't want to defame the man, but I think Luther Burbank might have been a eugenicist. History is what it was. And you have to take it for its complexity, and you have to trust that people are grown up enough that they can parse that. Both, that it was a different time, and that they're allowed to have their judgments of whatever they make. And you can still learn about the story, whether or not you agree with this person. The things I told you are facts and they are true, and that person then did go on to discover this thing that then.
And sure, there's a lot of different ways to tell that story from the lab assistance perspective, from the person who's getting the shot in is the unwitting clinical trial guinea pig, or is there this thing, or is that. There's a lot of ways to tell these stories. And it's important to try to break the mold in a way, of the way that it's always often told. But at the same time, you just have to be a higher threshold of complexity than I think a lot of people wish, or have, or want to have, or want their stories to have. And I think that's just how it is.
And we did a story not so long ago about Helen Keller, who was one of these people. Who's an amazing, incredible pioneer, who is an exemplar, but also very complicated figure who both her iconic status and her eugenic views basically make her this really complicated person. And to have that story reported in part, or to have the major voice on that story be a deafblind person, it enriches, it makes it so much more interesting, and it unlocks all this history that you reading about Helen Keller in a high school history textbook or something. You don't get that level of richness. So to me, I don't know. I think that you dive back, and then things get complicated and then it's like, "Okay, great, they get complicated." It's not like, "Oh, they get complicated. We can't tell this story anymore. This is a radioactive story that we can't go near." No it's like, "No, life is complicated. Everybody's complicated." And stories are complicated. And in fact, that makes them more interesting, I think, not less.
Sam: I agree with that. And I would also say that when I think of a show that does a really good job of not acting like the thing they're talking about operates in a vacuum, it's Radiolab. And with science in particular, just because we're a science podcast, that's something that, Deboki and I, think have tried our best within that 25 minute time limit, to really be able to address things that are not the cut and dry. This is a thing that causes this thing that was discovered by this person. Okay, onto the next one. Yeah. So I was just going to say, I appreciate that you and your colleagues' work so hard to move away from that vacuum model, because that's not real life.
Latif: Right, right, right. And even if it was, the telling that same story over and over again gets super boring.
Sam: So boring.
Sam: Yeah. So Latif, other than the many things that you do, are there other things that if you are not in front of a camera, if you are not behind a microphone, if you are not deep in a museum's archives, what do you do for fun? What do you do?
Latif: I don't know. I mean, I have kids now, so I just do really dumb kid things.
Sam: That could be very fun though.
Latif: Oh yeah. Super fun dance party.
Sam: Oh, that's awesome.
Latif: Yeah. Impromptu dance parties and stuff. I don't know. Yeah. I like to read to just, I like as I said, noodle around Wikipedia. I'm trying to bike more. I don't know, I'm trying to be a full human being, but I'm too obsessive to be a well-rounded, balanced human being, so I end up just... Yeah, I'm a workaholic and I like the thing I do, and I just constantly do it. Which is not healthy in the long term, but it's very satisfying in the short term.
Sam: I feel, I feel this very strongly where my husband will say, if I have free time, I'll be like, "Oh, well I have this time too." And he is like, "You cannot say that it's your relaxed time if you fill it with a thing that is ultimately you trying to produce something else, this is not how it works." Because he works so hard, but he's so good when he has those moments to just, he can shut it down and I cannot. Where he'll go up to me and put his hand on my head and be like, "Turn off. Turn off."
Deboki: I think I've had that exact same conversation with my partner.
Latif: Yeah, that's good. It's good to have that. It's good to have that human being next to you who could do that.
Latif: I think that's really good. And my wife does that too. I mean, she's in her own way, a workaholic, but she, she's much better at doing that than I am. Yeah, but I think that's an important ability.
Sam: Yes, absolutely.
Latif: That I do not have. That I need to develop.
Sam: Yeah. I feel like we're all preaching to the choir here. Latif, Deboki and I, we're all like, "Do you work constantly? Yeah, but you like it? Yeah."
Latif: Yeah, exactly. There's something masochistic about it.
Sam: Yeah, absolutely.
Sam: On that note, maybe because it's a Friday-
Latif: A note of masochism?
Sam: Oh, that wasn't what I was going for. I was going to say on the note of ‘we work too much,’ maybe it's a Friday, we can close…
Latif: Great point. It's actually supposed to be a holiday. Yeah, you're right.
Sam: Oh, Right. Yes, yes. Yeah.
Latif: So maybe not Norway, so you're off [inaudible 01:05:19].
Sam: Well this was so fun. Always talking with you, Latif is just so fun.
Latif: Pleasure is mine. And your show is great and good luck with it.
Sam: Thank you.
Deboki: Thank you. Much appreciated.
Sam: Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society, a non-profit scientific organization based in Washington, DC. Thanks so much to Latif Nasser for joining us. If you have thoughts, questions, ideas about future Tiny Matters episodes, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a wonderful, safe end to 2022. See you in 2023.