Convocation speaker addresses life’s great mysteries

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Robert Krulwich Willamette University Opening Days speaker
    Robert Krulwich of Radiolab speaks with Willamette University's first-year students during Opening Days 2016.
  • Robert Krulwich Willamette University Opening Days speaker
    Robert Krulwich of Radiolab speaks at convocation during Opening Days 2016.

Robert Krulwich of Radiolab urges first-year students to cultivate wonder about the world.

One of the world’s most famous science storytellers wished Willamette’s class of 2020 “four glorious years of mystery and feeling and knowledge and hours and hours and hours of wondering.”

As the guest speaker at Friday’s convocation ceremony on the Quad, Robert Krulwich, known for exploring “big ideas” as cohost of the Peabody Award-winning public radio show Radiolab, stressed the importance of cultivating wonder and a “feeling for mystery.”

First-year students and parents found a great distraction from the heat that day in Krulwich, whose imaginative and playful storytelling methods transform dry topics into compelling forms. He once created an Italian opera, “Ratto Interesso” to explain how the Federal Reserve regulates interest rates and explored the structure of DNA using a banana.

The recipient of multiple writing awards, Krulwich won a top honor from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine for excellence in communicating science to the general public via Radiolab. The show’s podcasts are downloaded more than five million times each month.

In a sweeping talk titled “The Science of Storytelling,” Krulwich drew from the work of 1950s American anthropologist and natural science author Loren Eiseley, German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, Albert Einstein and others to illustrate unexpected, powerful connections between humans and animals, our search for community and how being open to the world around us can transform ordinary moments into extraordinary experiences.

Although Krulwich acknowledged that first-year students will encounter countless new distractions, he encouraged them not to sleepwalk through life. He urged them to spend their college years not simply checking items off their to-do lists but pondering mysteries such as how fragile butterflies manage to fly thousands of miles during migrations to Mexico.

He cited Eiseley’s writing as an example of the “greatest and most meaningful act you could ever accomplish — to ask questions about our world, questions that stick and tickle and stay.”

College, he noted, provides the invaluable opportunity to discover and wonder about “the things that intrigue you.”

“It’s such a great mystery to be here. There’s so much we don’t know,” Krulwich said. “If we don’t have the nouns and the verbs and the knowledge to explain what it’s like to be here, at least we have a feeling for what it’s like to be alive, a feeling for the mystery — what is wonder but a feeling for the mystery?”