The Sunday Magazine

Latif Nasser on being 'the ambassador to the most childish part of your brain' in his new series

Mississauga, Ontario’s Latif Nasser has a PhD in the history of science and made his name as a science journalist with the groundbreaking and wildly popular podcast, RadioLab, and another podcast he hosts called The Other Latif — about a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who shares his name. He brings his infectious sense of wonder and energetic curiosity to his latest project: Connected, a documentary series on Netflix that explores the dizzying interconnectedness of things in our world.

‘There's not one answer’ to humankind’s biggest questions, says Nasser

Latif Nasser brings his infectious sense of wonder and energetic curiosity to his latest project: Connected, a documentary series on Netflix that explores the dizzying interconnectedness of things in our world. (Netflix)

If you've listened to much public radio or podcasts in the past few years, chances are you've heard RadioLab — or heard its influence.

In its early days, RadioLab sounded like little else on the airwaves with its blend of science, journalism and creative sound design. And it's the show where a young Canadian named Latif Nasser got his start in science journalism.

Early on in his tenure with the show, Nasser reported on snowflake photography and the incredible properties and medical uses of horseshoe crab blood. In the years since, he's travelled the world to tell remarkable stories and become RadioLab's Director of Research.

He's also a man capable of intense enthusiasm and empathy, as seen in his biggest radio project — The Other Latif, about a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who shares his name.

His latest project is Connected, a science documentary series on Netflix. It's all about the dizzying interconnectedness of things in our world.

The Sunday Edition's guest host, Kevin Sylvester talked to Nasser about his new show and why he's trying to trace the links between things that seem as disparate as pig surveillance and online dating. 

Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.

I teased the link between people surveillance and online dating. What is the connection between those two things?

Well, the connection between those two things is the tools — the tools that we're using on others, including animals, these tools of watching. These big companies — in one case these big factory farm type companies, and another case, dating apps — are watching us. They are watching us in ever more impressive ways, and what they're finding out is sometimes quite scary and unsettling.

Well, they're sort of monitoring the pigs partly to make sure that these animals are being treated ethically. That was the sense I got. Is that right?

That's right. That's an ethical tightrope in and of itself because you're obviously breeding these pigs to slaughter them. But the idea is you use facial recognition on pigs in order to track them throughout a factory-farm-type setting where there are thousands of pigs. But if you could track them individually, you could give them individual care, attention, medication to make their lives a little bit better. But it's not just about tracking them. What the researchers that I talked to in Scotland were working on was trying to use facial recognition of pigs to — it sounds so crazy to say it aloud — plumb their emotional depths to see how happy these pigs are, to see if they're wincing of pain or whether they seem to be relaxed and carefree.

In the Netflix series Connected, journalist Latif Nasser dives into the world of surveillance and explores the connections between, dating apps, farming pigs and facial recognition software. (Netflix)

Instead of taking a deep dive into one subject, you decided to look for the connections between disparate things. Why did you decide to go for that approach in this show?

Because it's so satisfying. My attention span is a bit scattershot. I like to think about my brain sort of rapidly flipping around. If you're jumping from lily pad to lily pad, the fun of that is to think how does this connect to that? It almost feels like you get that satisfaction of putting the next puzzle piece down and you're like, "Oh, they fit just exactly nicely."

You don't shy away from the big questions. Is that an approach that would be better to deal with some of the big questions — existential threats — that face us right now?

We live in such a complicated specialized, diverse world, that there's no one story that captures everything. When you're asking the really big questions, there's not one answer coming from one place. It's a tapestry. You have to stitch it together and who knows what's the next piece you're picking up? But hopefully there's a gestalt from all of it to say, "Oh, I feel like I'm getting somewhere."

In one of the episodes featuring clouds, you ask, Journalists are sometimes afraid of asking questions that make us look silly. But you're not afraid of that at all. What is the value in asking questions that are out of left field or unexpected?

There's tremendous value in asking those questions. It's almost our job. I see myself as the lucky proxy. I'm the person who gets to be there. I'm the ambassador from the most childish part of your brain.

Sometimes you do throw off the scientist, but in a good way. We cast for scientists who are extra game, who will take that question — often the oversimplified version of it — and say, "Okay, it's kind of like the cloud's constipated, but really it's duh da duh de da." It's so much more helpful because they're meeting me halfway … I'm just hooking into a thing that he probably wouldn't have said, because of fear of potty humour. But I'm a little bit thick. I need it explained to me like I'm a kid. Once he does that, then it helps me explain it to my audience.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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