Q&A with Lulu Miller, public radio personality and Peabody-winning science journalist
We paid a virtual visit to Lulu Miller, public radio personality and Peabody-winning science journalist. She is currently the cohost of Radiolab, WNYC's hit show about science, philosophy and politics, which is broadcast on over 300 stations across the U.S. She is also the cocreator of NPR's Invisibilia, a show that "explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior."
Her new nonfiction book is Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life (2020), about the unique struggles of American taxonomist—and possible murderer— David Starr Jordan.
[Interesting local connection: The woman whom Jordan possibly murdered in 1905 was Jane Elizabeth Lathrop, who was born in Albany and attended The Albany Academy for Girls. She married Leland Stanford (born in Colonie) and together they founded Stanford University in 1885.]
A man possessed with bringing order to the natural world, Jordan would be credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humankind in his day. But the more he uncovered of the hidden blueprint of life, the harder the universe seemed to try to thwart him. His specimen collections were demolished by lightning, by fire, and eventually by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—which sent more than a thousand discoveries, housed in fragile glass jars, plummeting to the floor. In an instant, his life’s work was shattered.... Many might have given up, given in to despair. But Jordan? He surveyed the wreckage at his feet, found the first fish that he recognized, and confidently began to rebuild his collection.
Why Fish Don't Exist was named a "Best Book of 2020" by the Washington Post, NPR, Chicago Tribune, and Smithsonian.
O, the Oprah Magazine called it, “Completely entrancing," and the New York Times reviewer said, “At one point, Miller dives into the ocean into a school of fish…comes up for air, and realizes she’s in love. That’s how I felt: Her book took me to strange depths I never imagined, and I was smitten.”
Preorder the paperback of Why Fish Don't Exist from the independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza: https://www.bhny.com/book/9781501160349
We asked Lulu Miller a few questions February during the snowy season. Enjoy!
What are you most looking forward to?
I just heard about cheese chalets; they’re like gingerbread houses but made of cheeseboard-y things. Cracker shingles, goat cheese mortar, olive walkways. They sound horrible and wonderful and my goal for the lonely winter is to make one.
What is your biggest hope for America in 2021?
As Code Switch broke down in this episode (https://www.npr.org/2020/06/16/878963732/why-now-white-people), the pandemic created the perfect storm of conditions (isolation, interruption of routine, shared grievances, increased time on social media, etc) that allowed for a long overdue eruption of mass protest over the brutal treatment of Black people by our police force and other sectors -- including journalism. I hope that as the vaccine arrives and life returns to normal, we do not look away. And we do not stop fighting, tooth and nail, to change the structures that permit the kind of violences our country has tolerated for too long.
What thing most changed your thinking this year?
In the early summer, a new book was released into the world. While it appears to be made of paper and traditional adhesives, I swear to you, it must contain dynamite. It’s called Disability Visibility and it’s an anthology of essays written entirely by people with disabilities. Not only is it a masterclass in how to write an essay (there are some truly thrilling experiments in form), but it’s a kaleidoscopic peer into an alternate way of seeing this world.
I came out of it questioning everything from the purpose of a back brace to the meaning of good sex. I think this is a book for designers and fashionistas and comedians and venture capitalists and writers and dancers and architects and you.
What activity are you most looking forward to enjoying after pandemic restrictions are lifted?
Finally getting to see Alanis Morissette play the Chicago stop on her postponed Jagged Little Tour.
Is there anything on Earth that you find unexpectedly beautiful?
Increasingly, thanks to a two-year-old with whom I spend a lot of time, trucks.
What new social or technological development excites you the most?
What did you most enjoy about writing Why Fish Don't Exist?
Watching the illustrations roll in! There was nothing finer than watching my words get spun into visual riddles by the genius artist Kate Samworth.
What idea, subject or field are you most looking forward to exploring next?
The best part about my new job co-host of Radiolab is that it is pretty much a job requirement to be led into my blindspots by the pack of brilliant, dogged, mischievous, weird reporters that comprise this team. That is, I get to ride shotgun on their reporting missions, to follow them down rabbit holes I’d never think to even look at, and ask my clumsy questions along the way.
Without giving too much away, we’re heading underwater to untangle a case of mistaken identity that spooked militaries for years, we’re exploring the upside of confusion and the downside of free speech and the moral complexity of breaking small laws to (potentially) accomplish a greater good. There are whales and cassette tapes and smuggled yogurt containers and so much darn confusion and emotion, and I’m giddy to get to try to hack through it all with them and then share it all with you.
More Lulu Miller
"Why Fish Don't Exist" explores eugenics in the US, a Hawaiian murder plot, and the meaning of life, by Hanh Nguyen, April 15, 2020, Salon.com