Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

Random Rules

Back to Episode

The business of life is the business of taking the disorder of the world, little bits of matter scattered here and there, and giving them shape, regularity, order. Or so we all thought. Science journalist Carl Zimmer claims that at a microscopic level, in the inner workings of cells, the basic processes of life are actually extremely sloppy. So where and when is the disorder translated into order? Jad's friend, Little Wing Lee, stops by with two old cassettes of her late grandmother singing. Jad uses the process of noise filtering to coax her voice out of years of accumulated tape hiss. Could this be the perfect analogy for how life filters order out of randomness?

Read more:

Carl Zimmer, Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life

Comments [13]

Eliza

wow

Mar. 26 2014 08:16 PM
Happy little Meridien from Maui

Deeply, deeply cool radio. Radiolab is in a class of its own. Now the theme song (at least the refrain heard at the end of the podcast) has become a little finger-poppin' rhythm that seems to overlay every activity of mine, complete with improvised jazz dancing. What the hell. Anyway, another of my favorites is "Emergence." Keep it up, guys, keep it coming!

Apr. 30 2013 01:34 AM

As Carl points out, the tape analogy isn't very accurate, as there's no underlying signal ("no grandma"). There are other examples from music that are a little closer: resonance in woodwinds, and genres (such as Glitch) that make music out of noise samples. The resonant cavity of a woodwind acts like a filter, creating musical notes (signal) from turbulence (noise). Seashells are the same, using resonance to filter and amplify certain frequencies out of background noise. In some musical genres, noise is used to create a signal in two ways: by using electronic filters (such as Jad used to clean up the tape), noise can be turned into notes, and by starting and stopping the samples to create rhythm (which you can consider a filter over time, rather than a filter over frequency).

Aug. 10 2012 02:34 AM
Tony Gamble from Oakland, CA

This particular show keeps referring to chaos and randomness as if chaos itself had no rhyme or reason. What about a show on chaos theory? Structure and pattern exists even within chaos. Wish you could do a back to back, with this program followed by one about chaos theory. Wells of probability, fractals, etc.

To go out on a bit of a limb, what about the mind-body connection? What if 'the field', referring to pure energy, or 'soul', is what the body grows into, is a creation of? What if the song sheet of DNA, RNA, mitochondria, etc. organizes, pulls matter into being FROM the background static? Now that's free will.

Great show, thank you. I must say that despite statistical evidence to the contrary, you'll never convince this one that synchronicity is not a real phenomenon.

Jul. 15 2012 03:25 AM
jared from Queens

I'd love to know who or what did the microsound/granular sound effects for this segment. Consider doing a show on composers who work with differential or non-linear equations to make microtonal music. There are many and they often interface analog computers with software making a hybrid kind of very experimental electronic music.

"Below the level of the musical note lies the realm of microsound, of sound particles lasting less than one-tenth of a second. Recent technological advances allow us to probe and manipulate these pinpoints of sound, dissolving the traditional building blocks of music—notes and their intervals—into a more fluid and supple medium. The sensations of point, pulse (series of points), line (tone), and surface (texture) emerge as particle density increases. Sounds coalesce, evaporate, and mutate into other sounds.

Composers have used theories of microsound in computer music since the 1950s. Distinguished practitioners include Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. Today, with the increased interest in computer and electronic music, many young composers and software synthesis developers are exploring its advantages." --"Microsound" by Curtis Roads

an old article:
https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~blackrse/chaos.html

Jul. 13 2012 09:17 PM

Sean M:

"Quantum" isn't synonymous with "chaos", nor with "random". Neither are the latter the same; they often get confused as both meaning "unpredictable", which they don't in technical fields. Newtonian systems can be chaotic; witness the Lorenzian Waterwheel (http://www.ace.gatech.edu/experiments2/2413/lorenz/fall02/). Quantum systems can be periodic, such as the arrangement of orbitals in elements. Furthermore, quantum systems don't meet the technical definition of "chaotic systems" as they are not deterministic.

Both the position and momentum of a particle can be known, but only up to a certain degree of accuracy. There is a tradeoff in the accuracy between the two, but it isn't all or nothing.

Whether two unbridged worlds you spoke of are the quantum and classical or the atomic and macroscopic, a bridge does exist. It's called the correspondence principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_principle). It's why everything observable at the macroscopic level has a quantum explanation, such as superconductors, the iridescence of oil sheens and feathers, permanent magnets and atomic bombs (see also http://www.quora.com/What-macroscopic-phenomena-can-only-be-explained-through-quantum-mechanics). What has yet to be bridged are the quantum and cosmic scales which can hopefully be done at extremely high energies, though higher than can currently be reached in colliders.

The chaotic nature of weather doesn't necessarily arise from quantum effects. A basic property of chaotic systems is that differences compound over time, so that slight initial differences result in systems that diverge rapidly, look nothing alike as they evolve. Weather models (which aren't based on quantum mechanics) exhibit this behavior, the same as real weather. The decreasing accuracy of predictions going into the future is a consequence of this divergence property and the differences between measured and actual (whatever that means) quantities.

One more page of interest: http://www.people.carleton.edu/~apattana/Research/RiceTalk.html

Science is a subtle thing.

Jul. 17 2011 05:14 AM

The CalTech scientists mentioned are those of the <a href="http://www.elowitz.caltech.edu/">Elowitz Lab</a>. The lab site features some <a href="http://www.elowitz.caltech.edu/movies.html">movies</a> and <a href="http://www.elowitz.caltech.edu/publications/Noise.pdf">publications</a>.

Nature has grouped the work of the Elowitz lab along with many others in a section on <a href="http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/biologicalnoise/index.html">biological noise</a>.

Jul. 17 2011 03:57 AM
David Barksdale

The reason life brings order from chaos is because in our universe one event causes another. Molecules flying around and bumping into each other with no discernible pattern would indeed stay chaotic if the history of their encounters were erased at each moment, but it is not. Once that molecule happens to bump into the right other molecules and forms a protein, that protein gets to stay around, it gets to participate in more chance encounters. It has the chance to effect the next thing that happens. It's part of a *process*. It's the machinery of the cell, the process, that does the filtering. It has a beginning state- what molecules are available-and a set of rules for how they can interact, the key ingredient that turns the chaos into order is that these rules are applied *iteratively*. One state provides the possibilities for the next state, which provides the possibilities for the next.

Nov. 04 2010 11:21 PM
Nate Turner

Guys, I know it's REALLY late in the game, but I loved that "stochasticity" remix of schoolhouse rock's "electricity." Is there a full version anywhere?
Thanks!

Jul. 06 2010 12:54 PM
Zack B from California

Well he was kind of depressing. Oh well. I'm still as free as I'll ever be.

Nov. 08 2009 08:30 PM
Sean M from WVPR, Vermont

This is a quantum universe. When you get to certain scale in the physical world, things are no longer governed by Newtonian Physics, but rather quantum mechanics. Scientist have yet to bridge these two worlds. In the Newtonian world, things are orderly and predictable, in the other they chaotic and random. At the atomic level, and can only know an electron's position or velocity, but not both. You can predict where it'll be a certain percentage of the time, and that's about it. By contrast, scientists will know where the earth will be 1,0000 years from now and it's velocity. But, at some point, the randomness of the universe will even make that impossible. Similarly, meteorologists cannot predict every vortice and rain drop in a hurricane, but they will know within a predictable margin where it'll be tomorrow. Three days from things get foggier, no pun intended, due to randomness. Since we are made up of quantum particles, I would expect things to be the same for us. We aren't that special.

Nov. 05 2009 03:59 PM
Sean M from WVPR, Vermont

This is a quantum universe. When you get to certain scale in the physical world, things are no longer governed by Newtonian Physics, but rather quantum mechanics. Scientist have yet to bridge these two worlds. In the Newtonian world, things are orderly and predictable, in the other they chaotic and random. At the atomic level, and can only know an electron's position or velocity, but not both. You can predict where it'll be a certain percentage of the time, and that's about it. By contrast, scientists will know where the earth will be 1,0000 years from now and it's velocity. But, at some point, the randomness of the universe will even make that impossible. Similarly, meteorologists cannot predict every vortice and rain drop in a hurricane, but they will know within a predictable margin where it'll be tomorrow. Three days from things get foggier, no pun intended, due to randomness. Since we are made up of quantum particles, I would expect things to be the same for us. We aren't that special.

Nov. 05 2009 03:59 PM
Penelope Gordon from KQED range

Is research being done to determine the connection between autism spectrum disorders and the ability - or inability - to filter out randomness? Perhaps an autistic child's inability to filter noise results in the child's brain only producing dopamine in response to very simple, regular patterns; and the lack of dopamine production also interferes with the child's motor skills.

Sep. 14 2009 09:31 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.