Science Radio Show Has Everyone ‘Grokking'

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So, you think you know how soap works? Do you really know, or do you just have an inkling?

Either way, you might hear the answer when KALX 90.7, UC Berkeley's campus radio station, airs its weekly science news program, "Berkeley Groks."

Every Wednesday, hosts Frank Ling and Charles Lee get together to report recent science news, interview professors and authors, and shell out obscure-but often useful-tidbits of information.

Each half-hour installment also concludes with the answer for the "Question of the Week."

The first episode of Berkeley Groks aired in March 2001.

"I was pleasantly surprised about the show when I first heard it a year ago," said chemistry graduate student Nir Goldman. "It makes me appreciate that the coolest thing about being a grad student at Berkeley is there's not only a wealth of departments to study under, but there also many creative outlets to participate in."

Ling and Lee, chemistry and molecular biology graduate students respectively, both started out as volunteers for the daily evening news program at KALX, but soon decided that listeners might appreciate a weekly program devoted entirely to science.

"Everything you do in life relates to science in some way, and everyone has some interest," Ling said. "But our educational system makes it all so esoteric. We try to make it entertaining."

A roster of the Groks' past episodes reveals the wide variety of discussion topics that have been aired.

Examples from the past year and a half include the phenomenon of stopping light, how listening to music can be an exercise in mathematics, what challenges nurses face in today's health care system, and how China's entry into the World Trade Organization will affect agricultural economics.

The duo recently interviewed Sylvia Nassar, author of "A Beautiful Mind," as she swung through the Bay Area on a book tour.

"We were actually really embarrassed because her publicist got her up at 5 am to come to our studio," Ling said. "We went to get her some coffee. Fortunately, the interview turned out really well."

Ling and Lee take short periods of time between laboratory work to conduct interviews, brainstorm topic ideas, and edit the audio tape for the program.

So far, their volunteer production responsibilities have not interfered with their graduate studies.

"I thought they were nuts for taking on so much responsibility, because they're both very busy grad students," said David Shih, a former KALX volunteer, now at KQED, who has produced two full features for the Berkeley Groks. "It was an amibitious goal, and I couldn't imagine doing it myself. I was very impressed."

The idea that study can, and should, be mixed with play is also championed by Berkeley professor Jeffery Winer, who oversees the laboratory where Lee works.

"I think students have lives and there's plenty of time to do both," Winer said. "Actually, the first time I found out Charles was doing this was when several of us were sitting around listening to the radio. I said, 'Gee, that voice sounds awfully familiar'-and it was Charles."

"It's a great thing, though," Winer said. "Too soon, students go into lives that can be very busy and narrow. It's important to keep life rich."

So what exactly is a "grok"? Not actually a noun, the word is described on the "Berkeley Groks" website as the ability to understand something so deeply that it is almost second nature.


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