Radiolab: The rules can set you free

4/9/2013 – Play is something we all do – it seems so natural, it feels a little bit ridiculous to ask why we need it. The nationally syndicated US station Radiolab discusses this theme, looking at young children, then board games like chess. It is commendable how the hosts take a complicated and dry subject – opening books, chess novelties – and use clever editing to make it accessible to a lay audience.

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Radiolab is a radio program produced by WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, and broadcast on public radio stations in the United States. The show is nationally syndicated and is available as a podcast.

Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (above), the show focuses on topics of a scientific and philosophical nature. The show attempts to approach broad, difficult topics such as "time" and "morality" in an accessible and light-hearted manner and with a distinctive audio production style. Radiolab received a 2007 National Academies Communication Award "for their imaginative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audiences."

The Rules Can Set You Free

Play is something we all do – it seems so natural, it feels a little bit ridiculous to ask why we need it. But psychology professor Alison Gopnik explains (starting at 1 min 10 sec in the podcast below) some profound benefits, and tells us about a noticeable shift that happens somewhere between age 3 and 6 – a shift that causes a kind of tug-of-war between total imaginative freedom ... and the rules. Very enlightening – don't skip this section and jump to the checkers and chess, especially if you have young children yourself or in your social environment.

Brian Christian weighs in (starting at 4 min 40 sec) on this same philosophical battle with an example from the 1863 World Championship of Checkers...where every single game in the 40-game series was a draw. According to Brian, checkers reached a point where all the best moves were known, and top-notch players realized it was possible to play an ideal game by using a set of plays known as "The Book" (6 min 50 sec). And this pretty much killed the game...by sucking out all chance for improvisation.

Then, Frederic Friedel, the cofounder of ChessBase, tells us (starting at 7 min 40 sec) about creating a database that's so widely used his critics call him the "man who ruined chess." But according to Frederic, and Bobby Fischer biographer Frank Brady, the sinister studiousness of The Book in chess (10 min 20 sec) is counter-balanced by a totally unpredictable realm of possibility known as The Novelty (12 min 40 sec).

Don't be put off by some of the minor inaccuracies – the Soviet card database was not "put online", the modern database of millions of games is not called "Fritzy", or the problems with move notation. Appreciate instead the very lively style employed by the show to make a difficult subject accessible to a lay audience. For instance: how would you do this for the statistics of predecessor games in the opening book? By clever editing and dramatic build-up. Bravo!

Listen to the broadcast with the inline player above, or:

Thanks to Alex Pachikov for pointing us to this page


Topics Radiolab
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