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Season 5 | Episode 5

Yellow Fluff and Other Curious Encounters

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'City of Ferrara' Airship. The original picture, by Carlo Burzagli, is dated 1914. "City of Ferrara" Airship. The original picture, by Carlo Burzagli, is dated 1914. (Carlo Burzagli (Private Archive of Burzagli Family.)/Wikimedia Commons)

The quest for scientific knowledge is one of the great and noble pursuits of humankind. It's also one of the most dangerous, frustrating, ego-driven, transcendent, dirty, sublime, tedious, demoralizing, get the idea. This hour, stories of love and loss in the name of science.


Erica Carmel, Jerry Coyne, Paul Davies, Tom Eisner, Alan Lightman, Erica Lloyd, Rob Reves-Sohn, Sarah Rogerson, Dr. Oliver Sacks and Steve Strogatz

The Wonder of Youth

At the age of thirteen, mathematician Steve Strogatz was astonished to find that pendulums and water fountains had a strange relationship that had previously been completely hidden from him.

And as a young boy, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks pored over the pages of ...

Comments [20]

Thrill of Discovery

Erica Carmel was unimpressed in her physics class at MIT when a professor demonstrated that by swinging a bucket full of water around on a rope, he could invert the bucket above him without it dumping all over him. After all, she had made the same discovery when she was ...

Comments [21]

Glad Somebody Likes Bugs...

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne got all soft inside when he thought about how the botfly larva in his scalp was eating his tissue and turning it into a new organism. It was of him, like a child. His friend Sarah Rogerson was a little less charmed, and they both ...

Comments [40]

Comments [50]

Gregvet from Colorado

On the first segment regarding the pendulum, time and parabolas, I listened intently to the segment and guessed a straight line,a logarithmic curve or a curve whose slope would approach but never reach 0. To my surprise, he said parabola! While I understand parabolas describe many naturally occurring events, I fail to see how a time vs pendulum length graph would ever describe a parabola. It would mean that at some point of increasing pendulum length, time to reach 10 swings would approach zero. Please explain.

Sep. 18 2016 08:21 PM
Red Slider from sacramento

My only quibble with the show was in the 'Why are we here? segment, where short shrift is given to art and poetry -- ways of being aware of the universe that are said to loose out to science. Hogwash! In fact it is science that looses out, being just another part of the common inheritance of the sensory apparatus of universal self-consciousness.

Poetry and art, on the other hand, are the real extensions of those other organs of awareness, something unique among all other means. Poetry and Art are the instruments that permit the universe to appreciate 'I the Universe'; of a self-grasping that can grasp a self grasping itself. Show me a telescope or a mathematical formula that can do that? Bah! Poetry and art are the Universe's organ of awareness that says, "Thank you Science, we'll take it from here."

ps: that is one of the reasons I've been advocating for years that our major scientific and social projects (CERN, NASA, HIROSHIMA MEMORIAL PARK, SPACE X, any breakthough/discovery project) put at least one world class poet on their regular staff. Do they listen to me? Nah. They are too busy being convinced that they are the apex of the tools of awareness.

Sep. 14 2016 05:13 PM
Veronica Kingsley from Kona Hawaii

Great show! I love and Hook On RadioLab. Like always leaves in Thoughts. One of which is....

I am confused and in brain steaming wonderment about the "City of Ferrara" Airship picture and the subject matter of this podcast. ? Maybe I missed the mention of Carlo Burzagli.

May. 18 2015 05:43 PM
simplee from tucson

Dr. Sacks didn"t use scientific approach when he strongly implied that we were created in order for there to be self-awareness & the ability to appreciate beauty. He said that (paraphrasing) "If beauty did not have anyone to appreciate it, why would it exist?" This implies that this is at least one of the reasons we exist... to provide that appreciation.I differ in the assignment of one-way cause & effect.

Here is my humble understanding of a scientific train of thought (in everyday language) on this topic:

The elementary particles of the universe collide with one another randomly. Because of the basic laws of physics, some of these collisions result in particles coming together in ways that allow them to stick together (or combine) to create larger entities. Again, under the same laws of physics, some of these combinations are more sustainable than other combinations. So these combinations persist.

Some of these combinations persist long enough to link up with other persistent combinations, to form even more complex entities. This process continues on & on, generating more & more complexity until you finally have what we call "life" or "living beings".

In addition, there is at least one other level of complexity involved. From the beginning (wherever & whenever that was) over time (whatever that is) the very presence of any new combinations, changes the "environment", so everything is literally changing at all times, & a combination that was sustainable at one time, in one place, will not necessarily be sustainable if it occurs at a different time or place.

In this way, each individual particle, & each individual combination, & the environment in which they exist (the other solitary particles & the other combinations & the laws of physics) influence each other to co-create a new environment.

This is the process we call "evolution". Those beings that are alive now, are alive only because at the particular time & place that their specific combinations of form & function came into being, the laws of physics happened to have led to a certain environment.... one that has favored their specific combinations over others.

Like all entities (living & non-living) human beings have been shaped by (& interacted with) the environment in this same way. We have evolved to have traits that make our species sustainable. One of these traits is to be attracted to those things that favor our specific form & function, & to avoid (or even seek to change) those things that do not favor our existence.

Thus, the environment that gave rise to us & favors our existence (Earth with its blue skies, white clouds, clear water, green plants, & temperate climate) is what attracts us.... that is what we see as beautiful. So beauty is literally "in the eye of the beholder" because it is one of the major factors that has created us, & sustaining it is the only way to sustain our own existence.... thus we necessarily appreciate it, seek it out, and feel comforted by it.

May. 17 2015 07:33 PM
zafar khatri

The quest for scientific knowledge is one of the great and noble pursuits of humankind. It's also one of the most dangerous, The quest for scientific knowledge is one of the great and noble pursuits of humankind. It's also one of the most dangerous, z

Feb. 19 2014 09:00 PM

I second Gary from LA - there is no such thing as "centrifugal force". It is funny that the show that focuses on science and technology is produced and attracts people who don't understand Newton laws.

It kind of reminds me of a joke about an electrical engineering graduate who said that he understand everything about electricity - engines, turbines, Ohm's law - except how such large sine graph fits into a such a small wire.

Jan. 06 2014 08:13 AM
Bint Arab from Austin, TX

Help! I can't figure out how to access the transcript! And from the comments, this sound like an episode I want to read!


Dec. 09 2013 12:28 AM
Gary from Los Angeles

Opps! I didn't mean to post that twice - my bad!+ {

Dec. 08 2013 09:12 PM
Gary from Los Angeles

I love your show. Used to work at WNYC as an audio engineer. If I were still in NYC, I'd love to work on your show!

I have one question and one comment in response to the episode this weekend:

Question - were Dr. Sacks' "little, tiny vials" also curt? (sorry, as a musician I couldn't resist that pun)...

Comment - Ms. Carmel did not discover "centrifugal force" (it's fictional), she discovered centripetal force. There's a difference. I'm surprised no one else has pointed this out!

Dec. 08 2013 09:10 PM
Gary from Los Angeles

Question - were Dr. Sacks' "little, tiny vials" also curt? (sorry, as a musician I couldn't resist that pun)... Comment - Ms. Carmel did not discover "centrifugal force" (it's fictional), she discovered centripetal force. There's a difference. I'm surprised no one else has pointed this out.

Dec. 08 2013 07:50 PM
J Fenwick from NYC

"""We had went to see Oliver Sachs""???? From an NPR host?

Dec. 07 2013 09:01 PM
Douglas Ward

Just listened to the segment about Mendeleev and the periodic table. At the end, you ask the question "Is this simply Mendeleev imposing order or is he recognizing some underlying order in nature itself?" And then you choose to punt.

As you probably know, or as you could easily found out from anyone who still remembers college or often even high school chemistry, Mendeleev's observations were tied to the underlying structures of the atomic orbitals starting some 60 years later with the work of Mulliken, Pauli and Heisenberg.

We now know that what Mendeleev noticed was not merely a human overlay on nature like the Linnaean classification system, which has since been hugely disturbed by modern genetic research. His periodic table is a first pass at a schematic representation of the actual underlying electron orbitals of the various elements (with the transition metals awkwardly misclassified).

So you should either have left off your trailing question or gone on to answer it.

Dec. 07 2013 05:39 PM
Ryan from North Carolina

The more we find out about the universe the more we learn about the insanely tight tolerances that had to exist and persist at the exact right moments in time over a 12-14 billion year time span to produce not just life, but anything more than a cloud of dust in an empty void. The chances of this we find mind boggling. When life is brought into the picture the chance of every chemical reaction, and temperature, and pressure, and every other necessity existing and persisting in the exact right amounts for the exact right time seems so remote as to point to some grand "scheme" or force compelling this infinitesimally small chance into certainty. When human life, with our DNA containing 3.1 billion bits of information is added to the equation then truly we are now out of the understandings of probability entirely.
Now on top of all of this evidence for a grand "scheme" let us dare to add on what seems to be written on every human's heart, not just scientists. Why is it that we have an insatiable desire to know this universe in which we live? Why is it we feel, as your physicist feels, that we are "blessed" by this "miracle" (his words) that is our existence? Why is it that everything, literally every single thing, points to something beyond itself, and why are we so determined to find out where that road finally ends? In short, why aren't we all lobsters?
I know why. You know why. And our physicist knows why. Why do we deny God as lunacy, as a fairy tale? Fear. Fear is even too soft a word. God scares man so badly that an academic genius will go on a national radio program and make so poor an argument for his foolishness that he nearly verbatim recites an apologetic proof for the existence of God. Which is to those of us who have the ears to hear, the greatest proof of all.

Dec. 07 2013 12:19 AM
Elisabeth Quallen from Ohio

Love the show!
I live in Ohio and actually found a botfly larvae in my dog, so some kinds exist outside the rainforest. Anyway I probably shouldn't have, but I didn't know what it was so I squeezed, and it slowly popped out. It was still pretty tiny, but now I wished I'd have recorded it!

Sep. 25 2013 10:12 AM

Anybody else catch Aha's 'Take On Me' in the background at the 17:45 mark?

Dec. 16 2012 05:49 PM
Barb from Pa

hate to break it to you, guys, but there are in fact some species of bot flies that live in temperate areas. usually they parasitize non-human animals but not always...

Dec. 16 2012 04:49 PM
Random Excess from Troy, NY

I, too, subscribe to the notion that consciousness in the Universe is no accident, but it is less a directed result as must as it is a necessary result, the only accident being that Humans have it, but it was (to my mind) the inevitable result of trial and error. I also realized I typed out about 2000 words or more before realizing it is not a simple explanation. Be that as it may, love the show in general and this episode in particular.

Dec. 16 2012 12:27 AM
JDStillwater from Harrisburg, PA

JoeRarey, there's another reason that each of us is the center of the universe. Since space expanded with the universe itself, starting from a single point, every point in the universe was "there" at the beginning, and every other point is moving away from it/you as the universe expands. The truth is, wherever you go, you inhabit the center of the universe. We all do. In the grand scheme of things, we are each miniscule but central!

Dec. 15 2012 06:47 PM
Geoff Butler

I really enjoyed this week's program on. I thought it would be perfect for my 9 year old who is really into science. Now, I cuss like a roughneck - but not around my kids (much). So it was unfortunate that you could not leave out the profanity (mild though it may seem to an adult). It really detracted - no benefit at all to your story.

Dec. 15 2012 04:40 PM
Thomas Watson from N. Calif.

It would really be good if each episode had a brief description of the contents. For example, with Yellow Fluff:
Periodic table
Globular clusters
Why are we here?
Three-eyed worm
Letting a bug eat your flesh

I'm sure someone could do this better, but I think that's the idea. It would also be nice to know who was on each episode. Sacks, Lightman, ...

Dec. 15 2012 02:01 PM

Eager to listen to the Yellow Fluff podcast especially after reading listeners' comments. However it keeps crashing at 2:26 just as Steve Strogatz notices that the curve he's plotting on graph paper is

Aug. 28 2012 02:51 PM

Wow. I've listened to about half of the episodes at this point and I just listened to this episode, which is my all time favorite. Each time I begin an episode, I hope for it to be as good at this one. I got chills when Steve Strogatz said, "There's a law of nature." I'm so inspired. Thank you for creating such a great show :)

Nov. 22 2011 03:43 PM

Hi guys, I recently discovered your show and LOVE IT. Amazing stuff. Had a quick question for you on your yellow fluff program.
Jad - at about 28 minutes into the program, you made a statement that was something to the effect of, "I dont think anything we have learned in the last couple hundred years would lead me to believe that we are the center of anything." This was in response to assigning purpose to our being intelligent.
Without ascribing an argument for or against intelligence, I would offer a rather significant scientific finding that points directly to us as being central -
Einstein's theory of relativity. In a nut shell, the laws of physics are entirely dependant upon YOU, the observer. Jad, YOU are the center of the Universe, and so am I.
Thanks for the great show.

Jul. 22 2011 04:14 PM
Jaime from Baltimore, MD

I'm currently taking a graduate level chemistry class and just happened to listen to the 'Yellow Fluff' podcast the other day, how ironic! Loved the periodic table song :)
I LOVE your show - keep up the great work!

Jun. 03 2011 09:59 PM
Barb from California

Love the show, but I agree about all the sound effects. Once in awhile is fine, but it really gets to be irritating. My son screamed "Turn it off!!!" when the periodic table cheerleaders started. Ugh.

Apr. 10 2011 07:12 PM
McGrath from Palo Alto, CA

The part about Oliver Sacks having a periodic table in the bathroom was funny but not that uncommon. I have a periodic table shower curtain. I googled it after I saw it on the Big Bang Theory. The periodic table wasn't fun when I was in school, but I love it now!

Mar. 23 2011 09:49 AM

Does anyone know the name of the song that plays at the end of the botfly segment, as the biologist is saying that the botfly larvae did not survive? It's the plaintive woodwind solo... sounds very familiar.

Mar. 22 2011 12:51 AM
Sylvia Douglin from Washington, DC

I LOVE RADIOLAB!!!!! I am SO hooked... Keep doin' what you're doin'


Dec. 06 2010 02:00 PM

jenny - that's the Prelude from J.S. Bach's first cello suite in G

Jul. 16 2009 05:21 PM

Can anyone clue me in as to the title and composer of that very familiar, very tremulous bit of violin solo occurring near the end of the periodic table story?

Jul. 16 2009 04:50 PM

The questions that the show inspired (planted) was what is the relationship between discovery and invention?

1: discovery , finding
2: productive imagination : inventiveness
3 a: something invented: as (1): a product of the imagination ; especially : a false conception (2): a device, contrivance, or process originated after study and experiment b: a short keyboard composition featuring two- or three-part counterpoint
4: the act or process of inventing

1 a: the act or process of discovering b (1)archaic : disclosure (2)obsolete : display cobsolete : exploration
2: something discovered
3: the usually pretrial disclosure of pertinent facts or documents by one or both parties to a legal action or proceeding

Those are the definitions for the terms in question. I have to start there but I think most people consider the difference is that a discovery is gotten by observation and invention is a creation of the imagination.

The questions: Could God be the universe? If there is no difference between the metaphorical version of God and the universe and the laws that guide it does it make either less "magical"? Science and Religion started out as the same thing (how man explains the universe). Are there laws (order) at work that give rise to these discoveries? Are these "laws" only observed because we are human and hardwired to find order or are humans the product of the laws and obverse the laws because they dictate that we are to do so? lol, do the laws that define the universe give rise to humans (or humanlike beings) just for us to observe them? how different is that from a God what creates an entire universe to give rise to humans just so they admire/worship him/her/it?

Feb. 14 2009 01:53 AM

In answer to Fiona's question (1/30/09), it's from the first movement (Prélude) from Bach's Cello Suite no. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007.

Feb. 05 2009 06:00 PM

Hey Fiona, the music you asked about is
J.S. Bach's Cello Suite 1, Prelude in G major.

Here is my favorite version:

Feb. 01 2009 12:23 PM

What is the music playing toward the end of the Oliver Sacks segment, around the times 16:40-17:50?

Jan. 30 2009 06:21 PM

Found this video on the other comments section:
If you look around that website there are also some pictures.

Jan. 27 2009 03:09 PM
Meg !

First: If I could marry Radiolab, I would.

Second: I just watched Werner Herzog's new film, "Encounters At the End of the World" -- in which Herzog travels to Antarctica, and documents the continent, as well as the strange and fantastic people that inhabit and study that landscape. A brilliant film well worth the time of any human that is fascinated by the intersection of science and imagination.

AND ALSO! I believe that there is little bit of footage of the famed YELLOW FLUFF. Sadly, I am no biologist -- and this yellow fluff may be another yellow fluff. It's likely just SOME yellow fluff. Just watch the movie, and take whatever kind of yellow fluff you can get.

Jan. 26 2009 06:50 AM

This is my favorite episode so far. Every section was interesting and frequently hilarious. While the last part was revolting it was also fascinating. Love the show!

Jan. 25 2009 07:30 PM

Eric - I guess you are right but really, Robert Krulwich should lay off. Also he laughs at everything. I mean how funny is science really. It's grating.

Jan. 23 2009 07:45 AM
Eric Lies


If you think Radiolab is a science podcast then you don't really understand what it is that they are doing. This episode in particular is meant to talk about that moment of Awe in discovery, but I think that is a good description of the overall goal of Radiolab. If it was just a science podcast, then why all the sound effects, why all the audio attempts at visualization and understanding? I think the beauty of this podcast is that it attempts to extrapolate science and explore the ideas of science in ways that are accessible and awe inspiring. I actually enjoy the times when radio lab is brave enough to draw back the curtain of awe and ask questions about what is behind it. Whether I like what they find behind that curtain or not.

Jan. 23 2009 02:22 AM

A science podcast is no place for Robert Krulwich's religious views. Robert Krulwich, keep your mouth shut when the time comes, which it does in every podcast, that you think the answer involves some grand designer of the universe. I'm not here for a sermon from church! Example from the podcast:
Robert: "You know in the Bible God creates a bit of the universe every day. But at the end of each day, almost as a necessary function, God says 'and it was good.'"
Jada: "He gives himself a grade."
Robert: "So maybe in a way this is just the atom's way of admiring itself. 'Cause what is a scientist, just a bunch of atoms."
Jada: "Yeah you know, it's a nice idea. But actually in the end I don't buy it. No. Because he's saying, the purpose of the universe is to create thinking beings, like us to examine it, and the best examiners of them all are the physicists. Well guess what, here's a physicist... I don't think anything that we've learned in science in the past couple hundred years would lead us to believe we are the center of anything."
Robert: "Well I think most scientists in the world would agree with you."
Jada: "And one more thing."
Robert: "But I don't care!"
Jada: "Just on the level of aesthetics, of beauty, isn't it more beautiful to think that this is all an accident?" Robert: "I HATE that idea."
Jada: "Why?"
Robert: "I HATE... You think that all of this beauty coming into being by accident is better..."
Jada: "Than having some purpose? Because if it has a purpose it means it's supposed to be here and if it's supposed to be here then it's just somehow a little less amazing. Do you know what I mean?
Robert: "Yes. I just think you're wrong."

Jan. 23 2009 01:38 AM

Jad, Robert, RadioLab Team,

As always, you have produced entertaining and thought provoking content. Thank you.

I would differ with Alan Lightman's perspective. If we cross reference Brian Greene's words in the RadioLab podcast of The (Multi) Universe(s), about the predictability of a bird's flight, with this broadcast, it’s not just two people who can have the same scientific idea, but also an artistic construct. Believe it has something to do with a shared set of experiences, shared similar or identical input, and the persons’ similar capacity to interpret that input; and we, as humans, have constructed our society to distinguish between science and art, and existence itself has no such constraints, which it has placed upon itself.

I agree with Paul Davies that the universe has engineered humans, and/or other life to enable them to understand the cosmos design, self comprehension, because after all, we are a part of the cosmos. It makes sense that the cosmos would birth, and gradually achieve self awareness..?

However, I disagree with Paul Davies that science is somehow greater in value than art. What we call art is the way the human mind is able to understand, and interpret the cosmos design when we are not able to articulate it precisely in mathematical, science equations. When art is appreciated collectively, by people other than the creator of the poem or painting, its like collectively accepted 'truth' akin to the collective acceptance of mathematical, scientific equations describing the cosmos.

The periodic table of elements - 'Human Construct or [cosmic] Divine Order'

Again, it people's tendency to categorize, why can’t it be ‘One' and the same…?

Jan. 21 2009 12:41 AM

I love this show, but having a bunch of kids screaming the periodic table is not cute or fun, it's really annoying and a little painful.

Jan. 18 2009 03:27 PM

The final section was very unpleasant. Count me as one person who was relieved to discover that the fly couldn't survive in the temperate zone of Boston. Yikes.

Jan. 17 2009 01:20 PM
Eric Lies

I was so excited by the first 2 stories on this podcast (the periodic table 10 commandments and the 2 researchers studying a problem light years away and coming to the same conclusion) and the question introduced of science, are we discovering or imposing things like the periodic table? Are we uncovering patterns or inventing them to make the universe accessible? I really lost some sleep turning this question and it's implications over and over in my head.

I would have loved it if the last half hour continued on this tack. This episode is exactly why I love radio lab and it's ability to ask big questions of good science. Thanks for ruining my sleep!!

Jan. 17 2009 01:19 PM

The link seems to be broken, i can only listen to a few seconds. Also the podcast download stops after a about 700k.

Jan. 16 2009 03:12 PM
Arthur B Kennedy

I would like to have the names of the guests on this show. Why is there no "other information" on the website? Also I've said it before, if you guys would tame the special effects a little bit the show would be a lot better.

Jan. 15 2009 02:10 AM
Mary Jo

Fantastic episode yet again! I second Johnlos - anyone have any links to some videos of this yellow fluff?

Jan. 14 2009 05:37 PM

I just loved this episode..I laughed out loud when Jad and Robert described how they crammed into Oliver Sacks' toilet to discover a periodic table there...But it really conveys the excitement of discovery in science.

Jan. 14 2009 01:55 PM

u know where videos of the 'yellow fluff' can be found? a cursory google search turned up nothing...

Jan. 14 2009 03:23 AM

The episode doesn't show up in the podcast/rss feed.

Jan. 13 2009 09:47 PM

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