Noun Replacement Therapy

Last weekend I saw Jad Abumrad (one of the hosts of Radiolab) in conversation with Andrew Denton at the Wheeler Centre’s final show of the year. Abumrad was as delightful and compelling as any listener of the podcast would expect. He covered a lot of ground in the hour; from Radiolab’s early audience of six or seven people, to the Yellow Rain controversy, and to Abumrad’s future plans to engage new audiences beyond those who actively seek out and subscribe to a podcast like Radiolab. There was one part that I found particularly interesting though: the idea of Noun Replacement Therapy.

Noun Replacement Therapy – or NRT for short – was described by Abumrad as one of the tools used by Radiolab to make science more engaging for listeners who may not be familiar with some of the jargon used by scientists in their interviews. It’s a fairly simple technique: replace the prosaic nouns used by scientists with other nouns that feel more alive or relatable. Of course, this isn’t a new idea. It’s Science Communication 101. Still, NRT is a neat little phrase to describe it.
rlabbyTo illustrate NRT in action, Abumrad used an example from the 2007 episode “Mortality”. They played a short clip from his unedited interview with Dr. Cynthia Kenyon in which she describes her research on the genetic factors of ageing in worms. Dr. Kenyon does a great job of explaining her findings in the raw interview and it is relatively easy to follow along for those with a general understanding of genetics. As Jad went on to explain though, the type of language used throughout the interview varied significantly.

There were some great verbs in there which naturally suited the subject matter and provided a kinetic energy to the science: “squashes the activity”, “liberate”, “springs into action”. The nouns, though? daf-2 gene. daf-16 gene. Hardly inspiring and meaningless to all but the researchers working directly with these genes. So Radiolab and Dr. Kenyon gave the two genes identities: The Grim Reaper gene and The Fountain of Youth gene. What is described in the scientific literature as a “daf-2(—) mutant” became “taking The Grim Reaper and knocking his knees out”. And the complex mix of interactions happening at the molecular level became a narrative of the bad guy conking the good guy on the head “like some kind of Three Stooges routine”.

three-stooges-516165_640

It is a simple and effective translation. And the introduction of the different personas provides plenty of space for the producers to use sound and music to bring the interview to life. Unfortunately the original, unedited interview isn’t available online but the final piece can be heard in the first nine minutes of the “Fountains of Youth” piece.

As a matter of interest, I thought that I might see how Radiolab uses this technique in other episodes that aren’t taken straight out of the textbook. The recent episode “Bringing Gamma Back” covering some exciting developments in Alzheimer’s research by Li-Huei Tsai and colleagues (full Nature article) is filled with other examples of NRT:

  • The gamma frequency becomes “a particular beat in your brain” (accompanied with a steady kick drum beat)
  • Dendrites become “long tentacles that are reaching out”
  • Plaques become “cobwebs in your brain”
  • β-amyloid peptides become “basically pre-plaque gunk”
  • Microglia become “the janitors of the brain”
  • The “dark chamber illuminated by a light-emitting diode (LED) bulb” becomes “The Flicker Room”
  • Grid/perspex flooring in an experimental chamber becomes “mouse carpet”

And I’m sure that you could find more examples in just about any other Radiolab episode discussing science or technology.

Although the NRT technique can be useful for simplifying science, Jad was quick to add at the talk on the weekend that it is important for the scientists themselves to be directly involved in the process and for them to have the final say on the suitability of each noun replacement. This is something that Radiolab does with their interviewees and it is one of many reasons why they have become such a successful program.

Interestingly, there is another type of noun replacement therapy out there. The GitHub page for the HuffingBoingBoingBot uses the phrase to describe the replacement of nouns in one headline with nouns from another headline, as used by @TwoHeadlines for comedic effect. For example, replacing “Dakota Access” with “Sylvester Stallone” in this headline to get:

Both types of Noun Replacement Therapy get my thumbs up.

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