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On this hour of Radiolab: a journey to the edge of human limits.

How much can you jam into a human brain? How far can you push yourself past feelings of exhaustion? We test physical endurance with a bike race that makes the Tour de France look like child’s play, and mental capacity with a mind-stretching memory competition. And we ask if robots--for better or worse--may be forging beyond the limits of human understanding.


Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated in error that Mr. S. remembered what his editor had assigned all the reporters at the newspaper. In A.R. Luria’s book, there is mention only of Mr. S. remembering his own assignments. We also inaccurately stated the rate at which Mr. S. could recall numbers. The actual rate was 50 numbers in 2.5-3 minutes. We also incorrectly stated that Mr. S. memorized Dante's “Inferno.” In fact, Mr. S. memorized only the first several stanzas. In addition, we depicted details of Mr. S.’s mnemonic performances without making clear that they were based in part on supposition. The audio has been adjusted to correct these facts and clarify our suppositions.


Patrick Autissier, Daniel Coyle, Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, Wendy Ingraham, David Jones, Jonah Lehrer, Dr. Hod Lipson, Julie Moss, Jure Robic, Michael Schmidt, Steve Strogatz, Gurol Suel and Ron White

Limits of the Body

Jad and Robert talk to two Ironman competitors, Julie Moss and Wendy Ingraham to find out how they do what they do. Physiologist Dr. David Jones tells us how to trick the voice in your head that tells you you're exhausted. Then we follow two men,

Comments [45]

Limits of the Mind

How much can you jam into a human brain? In this segment, Jonah Lehrer tells us the stunning tale of Mr. S., a man whose memory seemed to have no limits. And Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg warns of the dark side of this gift. Then we visit the annual ...

Comments [34]

Limits of Science

Dr. Steve Strogatz wonders if we've reached the limits of human scientific understanding, and should soon turn the reins of research over to robots. Cold, calculating robots. Then, Dr. Hod Lipson and Michael Schmidt walk us through the workings of a revolutionary computer program that they developed--a ...

Comments [31]

Comments [92]

Eliza from Christchurch, Va

The section on Limits of the Mind really expressed to me the limits on our memory. If you try to remeber too much, it will actually inhibit your ability to recall things clearly. This causes me to think of schools and education. So many schools just require students to memorize information instead of truly learning it. If students are asked to memorize too much information, it is actually hurting their ability to remember the information they are supposed to be learning in the end. This shows that students who learn by memorizing every little detail maybe aren't actually increasing their knowledge or training their brain but hurting it.

Oct. 26 2017 07:02 PM
Name that cannot be pronounced from Christchurch

People are trying to find the limits of everything in the whole human history. However, limits can be changed through many reasons. People have different body limits. It depends on the ability of the person who is involved in those tests. Julia could not stand up at the end of her race but there was another woman win the race. Every individual one has its own limit at different time, so we cannot really tell what the limits of human are.

Oct. 25 2017 09:07 AM
Jack from Virginia

The body is a mechanised ecosystem in fractal form; from cell to human everything works together and each component part is made of a smaller machine. Which, of course, makes me wonder at the difference between machine and organism and how their limits differ. What is to stop an organism from (analogously?) achieving the same as a machine and vice versa? Where do they integrate?

I guess the word for it is 'mechanism', though that seems to connote a smaller piece in a larger puzzle. Perhaps the borders between the construct and the biological are not so clear-cut as we may have thought. Are biologically constructed organisms not therefore constructs?

It's a complex question, and there are no simple answers to complex questions.

Oct. 11 2016 11:32 PM

This episode is absolutely fascinating. It is telling us by experiments that we can always do better and there is no such thing about "I have already done my best." It is, in fact, your brain messing with your mind to prevent you from doing better. And that is maybe the alternative of life, to explore more, to reach closer and closer to the limits even if you think you are just normal. People are capable of doing things that they never think they can do.

Oct. 11 2016 10:09 PM
Raphael from VA, Christchurch

There are three parts of the limit, the limit of body, the limit of brain and the limit of science which also means knowledge. For the limit of body, I had a lot of questions, why does people always want to test their limit? Is that true our bodies do not have a limit? In the listening, when I heard that the player was kind of lose control on her own legs, and fall to the ground over and over again, I was so touched. I never thought about that people will push themselves that hard, and they do not stop, even their body is not under control. For the limit of brain, after I heard Mr. S ‘s skill I was so jealous, because he could remember everything that he saw. However, I realize that problem that forgetting is just the good part of human brain, Imaging that you could remember everything that happened in your life, wouldn't be scared? There is a limit of brain, if we chose to remember everything, our brain will stop work. For the limit of science, I believe that there is no limit of the knowledge, when you know more, you realize that there are much more you do not know. I also believe that our human brain is stronger than robot, even they may think faster than us and solve that questions that we could not solve.

Oct. 11 2016 06:53 AM
Alara Sahin from Christchurch, VA

Does the body have a limit or have we just not discovered the wonders of our body? We are probably more capable then we think we are. But no ones seems to push themsleves more then they have to or after the voice that tells us to stop. So if we all stop who will find the limits of the body? There is so much to discover but limited time...

Oct. 11 2016 12:51 AM

I enjoyed the computer section at the end of the podcast, but I have a couple of questions about it that I don't seem to understand.
If a computer generated formula is produced, why does there need to be an explanation in order for it to be published?
What I mean by this is why do we have to explain that one thing is true even though we know it's already true without technically proving it, we can never prove it's wrong so that should be enough evidence to publish it. Scientist Steven revealed at the beginning of his interview that some things can be true without any proof, I can't envision a better example other than a computer generated formula. Besides, granting public access to the equation would probably enhance the chances of rendering the equation simply because there would be more people trying to explain them.

Oct. 10 2016 11:30 PM
Matthew Schaefer from Christchurch VA

This episode is a great way to end unit on limits in a calculus class. Thank you Radiolab!

Oct. 04 2016 01:53 PM
Steven Callahan from Thomasville, GA

I hear some complain about the music. Yet to me it is what binds me to the story. I can not help but think it might be the same phenomena as the raspy female voice. Which absolutely drives me insane...

Just goes to show... You can not please everyone... Unless you can figure out how to do it in the style where people over a certain age just can't hear it!!

Love you guys...

Feb. 27 2016 07:59 PM
Hung An from Christchurch, VA

It's interesting that when we remember too much, we won't be able to filter informations or understand it. This idea reminds me of education in Asia, where memorization is the central method of study. Perhaps when the students from these countries obtain so much data and information through memorization, they would also lose the ability to understand or filter.

Oct. 05 2015 09:30 PM
Zym Koh from Christchurch, VA

Throughout history, humans have been interested in limits of their physical and mental ability. But why are we so interested in discovering limits? After listening to this episode, I thought that there are no clear signs of limits. When we even think that we have reached our limit, we may later say, "I could have done more." or "I could have done better." All these ideas and stories presented in the podcast are simply fascinating. But, what I am more considered about is whether we should believe in limits. Even if we believed that limits do exist, it would seem very difficult to actually reach the limit because our minds keep telling us that we can do more. Maybe something in our minds wants to tell us and remind us to constantly push ourselves. Maybe something in our minds tries to prevent us from reaching the limits in order to remind us to keep pushing ourselves. We do not know what is telling that to us, but it is something bigger than us, something better than us. It tells us not to stop but to keep going. Maybe that is the purpose of our lives... to go further, dare to challenge, think more deeply, and be better people.

Oct. 04 2015 09:47 PM

Who gets ownership of the equation presented by the computer? Is it whoever made the computer, the computer, or the person that interprets it?

Oct. 04 2015 08:30 PM
l w calhoun from atlanta

A few years ago there was a man swimming off a beach on the Florida Gulf Coast who drifted on a current far from the beach. By the time he noticed, he was out of sight of the beach or any other landmarks.

He had to tread water for almost 30 hours before a passing pleasure boat happened by and picked him up.

The man commented on the tremendous struggle it was to stay awake so long. He had faith that if he stayed awake so he could keep treading, eventually help would come along.

Oct. 19 2014 09:04 PM
Tim Raykowski from Spokane, WA

I enjoy the subject matter but have a very hard time making it past 10 minutes in any of these podcast. The music is so jumpy and random along with the sound effects it is very distracting and makes it feel like a 1960's acid drug scare movie. Also the hosts never let us hear a guest for more than a word or two or a small sentence without editing his voice in post production to say the exact thing the guest is saying. I literally have hear a guest talking and his voice will just pop in and say a word the guest was just saying or is going to say. The "guest host guest host guess host" to finish one 7 word sentence is again, like the music and sound effects extremely jump around feeling and distracting. This is disappointing because I have liked most of the topics and want to hear more and really truly think they are on to something but I seriously have to turn it off after 10 minutes of 2 second music clips, broke up between one word host interjections (like 5 per sentence) and 2 second old radio clips and sound effects. What's wrong with interview style with a few host post production comments per episode?

Jul. 07 2013 02:21 PM
Traci Gallagher from ohio

You should replay this podcast. RAAM just started yesterday!

Jun. 12 2013 09:51 PM

Is anyone else out there bothered by the fact that they refer to chaos as random? The double pendulum's behavior is deterministic, and just because, outside of the small angle approximation, it cannot be solved analytically does not mean it is a random system.

Mar. 09 2013 04:13 PM

great show. my first and I really enjoyed it.
have to agree about the music though. Its distracting & irritating.

Jan. 23 2013 01:05 AM
Bonnie from WESA - 90.5 FM Pittsburgh

Curious about what seems like some obvious gaps in the storytelling. Why are we introduced to Julie Moss's friend as if we're going to hear about their differing approaches to running and pushing bodies to limits when we never hear learn anything substantive about the friend? Julie says, very portentously and intriguingly, "this was the moment when my life changed," but that's explored not at all! Then we hear from the cyclist whose inner voice is clearly telling him "stop" -- the very opposite of Julie's -- but those two differing responses under extreme duress are not even acknowledged, much less explored. I would have liked less disparate scientific info crammed in and more room for these stories to breath, link and be put into context. Overall enjoy Radiolab, though.

Sep. 16 2012 11:12 PM

I cant get past the swishing of energy drink bit.

To treat hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), you put sugar under someones tongue. This area rapidly absorbs sugar,it is amazing to see this work in people. It wasn't even acknowledged that sugar can act this way, confounding factor?? It blows a hole in the limit theory. Very unsettling.

Sep. 01 2012 11:46 AM
Wil Davis from Nashua, NH

Every Radiolab broadcast I've heard so far has been spoiled by the overuse of the dramatic voices, sometimes whispers, and the dreadful musak, sloshed around, drowning the few salient points heard in the narrative in an awful emulsion of noise. C'mon chaps, I think you should be able to do far better than this poorly produced tripe! - Wil Davis

Aug. 31 2012 01:00 PM

@Troy for it to be a placebo effect the cyclists would have to be told that they WERE receiving the energy drink. Since they did not know whether the swing of liquid was in fact the energy drink or not so it would not have the placebo effect.

Mar. 29 2012 04:50 PM
Troy Stoner from Savannah, GA

One part of this episode still has me wondering. When they gave the bicyclists the shot of an energy drink and had them spit it out, practically no placebo effect happened. Yet in the placebo episode the placebo had a pretty consistent result. I believe you claimed in was an unconscious signal sent to our brains knowing it was energy/sugar and unleashing the reserve energy inside us. Why was the energy drink placebo exempt from typical results, or did I miss that part?

Jul. 22 2011 09:24 AM
Kez from Australia

It was funny, during the last part of this show I couldn't help but think about something I came across a little while ago- a left / right brain test I did (which can be found here:

I happen to use the right side of my brain (the creative side) a little more than my left according to this test. Part of the result I got from it was this:

"You are able to visualize the "whole" picture first, and then work backwards to put the pieces together to create the "whole" picture."


Now when you think about it, people who work in the fields of science or maths are dominantly people who more use the left side of their brains, presumably.

So when it mentioned this 'insight', how we can know the answers without understanding them, I simply figured- why not get the people with dominant right brains to work the answers backwards?

In theory, it sounds simple. and awesome.

but yeah, thats just it. My theory.

When it comes to practice though, I doubt that enough people with significantly dominant right brains would ever be interested enough to get into something like that in the first place... but meh. you never know.

Anyway great show as always.

By the way, I think it would be amazing if you guys could do a show about the whole left / right brain thing :)

Jul. 02 2011 07:23 AM
Ariel Bentolila from San Francisco, CA

Great show (as usual)! Lots of food for thought. One comment about that solution for that complicated system of biological process being very explicit, yet not being meaningful enough to publish. This situation has actually been around for decades, and does not require any advanced (hi-tech) analysis algorithms to get stuck in that ditch. For example, the neurons in hidden layers of Artificial Neural Networks will learn a complex landscape of network connection weights that will enable the network as a whole (once trained) to recognize 1000's of distinct objects, where each neuron partially learns unspeakable, yet distinct (sub)features learned from the object/event training set. You can think of each neuron's connection weight as a variable in a huge equation consisting of the whole network calculating as a whole. In this way, you can explicitly say what each neuron is calculating, but you have no idea what it means because there is no clear connection between the connection weights and any particular learned feature of an object in the training set. The same problem occurs in most other kinds of evolved/induction learning systems (e.g., genetic algorithms: no clear connection/meaning between genotype and phenotype, etc.) Based on this long history of such problems, the researchers doing this experiment should have known that they would likely get something exact, yet could not be explained.

I would love Radio lab to explore this issue in the context of Kurt Gödel logical proof that there is a LIMITs on human ability to understand the workings (i.e., meaning) of his own mathematical intuition. So, according to Gödel all the above examples are capturing a mathematical intuition, which necessarily must be meaningless to the human observer using his own math intuition to understand them- a deadlock. Many people cite this Gödel's proof as strong evidence that creating Artificial Intelligence is impossible for this reason, and if it were created no human would understand how it works. Hey Radio Lab, how about a show on that?? I think it is a fun and very insightful controversy for anyone who has a scientific and philosophical interest.


Feb. 24 2011 03:00 AM
eliza from France

I hope it isn't bad etiquette to post a link, I just want to share it here because the "Limits" episode/Robert's comments were the springboard for the following article about collective cultural memory and how technology is rewiring upcoming generations:

Thanks for being so inspiring, Radiolab crew!

Jan. 03 2011 04:23 PM
Lily Hope from Chicago

I listened to this when I was nine months pregnant. When I went into labor (at home) I kept thinking about the Master Regulator you talk about here, and also about the "pharmacy in your head" concept from the show on the placebo affect. I just kept trying to access that pharmacy and push my limits. I made it--twelve hours of labor, nine hours of hard labor, and a last-minute drive to the hospital where I had to give the driver directions in between contractions--without any drugs, and my pretty little girl was born just after we got to the hospital. Thanks, Jad and Robert!!!!

Oct. 19 2010 10:33 PM
Marc F. from Sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha

I'm glad I'm not the only person who immediately thought "They've invented Deep Thought!" during that last segment. As a matter of fact, I was actually somewhat surprised that the solution for that complicated system of biological processes wasn't some equation involving the number 42.

If a future episode of Radiolab features the discovery that mice are hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings, I'm going to start working on some way to flag down passing spacecraft... there's no way I'm sticking around when the events of HHGTTG start to happen in real life and the Vogons decide that our corner of the universe would be a good spot for a hyperspace bypass route.

Oct. 12 2010 10:45 AM
rafid from canada

the group with the real energy drink may have it absorbed through the mouth thats why they performed better.

Oct. 02 2010 01:05 AM
Heather from Illinois

Very sad news.

Sep. 25 2010 08:14 AM
sean from Oregon

If man creates the computer that comes up with the answer to a cell's function w/o 'knowing' its understanding of why, it technically says that we knew the answer all along yet have not evolved enough to create a computer to understand this, as Ken Wilber speaks to in his book, 'A Brief History of Everything', addressing the essence of Holons, and Enlightenment.

And should we get to the point of understanding our existence-a driving human force-then what will we have possibly lost in the process of needing to know the 'why'? Possibly the very mystery that makes life worth living in its impossibly painful yet beautiful way.

Should we reach that point in our so-called evolution then, paradoxically, we might very well cease to exist as we know ourselves to be right now.

Do we truly want that or is it inevitable given our drive to know the 'whys' and 'wherefores'?

Sep. 22 2010 04:42 PM

Regarding the Limits of the Mind...

Technology might already offer dramatic improvements to everyone's memory: The SenseCam and "Making Virtual Sense of the Physical World"

(I couldn't figure out a way to get a Pingback comment via Blogger)

May. 16 2010 03:33 AM

How does the computer know what force is without it being described in terms of mass times acceleration? You can tell the computer the mass of each ball and tell it to calculate acceleration as the time rate of change of position, but where do you even start to give it a meaningful idea of force without referring to Newton's second law, either directly or indirectly?

May. 10 2010 06:34 PM

I was surprised and delighted to hear the bits about synesthesia and memory, but I have to disagree with the connection between synesthesia and extraordinary abilities for memory or mathematics. I have always experienced numbers as personalities but, unlike the brilliant folks portrayed in your story, I don't feel that I have any particular facility for remembering numbers in any context. In fact, I'd never heard of anyone who experienced math and numbers the way I do, so I've always felt that this synesthesia was a bizarre handicap rather than a help to me.

So it's an interesting story, but the connection between the neurology and memory might be coincidental? Or perhaps I'm just not using my tendencies toward synesthesia for the best effect!

May. 05 2010 12:31 PM

As a cyclist, I was amazed at the idea of people attempting to ride, nonstop, across the country...When I rode 110 miles I was spent...the idea of riding nonstop blows the mind!

Apr. 30 2010 08:09 PM
DE Teodoru

When a cheetah spots a gazelle his brain plots not only a motor trajectory but a metabolic one-- pre-programmed ATP turnover rate for a given amount of time. It's not that YOU run out of energy, as you're constantly making it, but that you have consumed the allocation of what the prize is worth in effort. We are not called upon to repeatedly strive but to do it massively only once in a while, AT WILL! Our "governor" thus plots the total worth of the effort, not our limits. Adrenaline keeps spiking unless something breaks (myocardium) due to an unexpected imbalance. So there's no fooling the governor about capacity but about worth of the effort. THEN it will plot an ATP/ADP cycling rate to meet the need.

Apr. 30 2010 04:21 PM

The TED talk released today is given by Stephen Wolfram and is very relevant to the Eureqa segment: Computing a Theory of Everything []

Apr. 27 2010 09:54 PM
David Bockoven

Thamks, Skipper

Apr. 24 2010 07:04 PM

@Michelle and @David Bockoven

In regards to the mannerisms, I highly recommend listening to "Making the Hippo Dance", a podcast that Radiolab released a while back. In it they address some of the concerns people have with their casual conversational approach to these weighty topics, and it might at least help explain to you why they choose to do the show this way.

Apr. 24 2010 06:29 PM
David Bockoven

Also, as to marathoners pushing beyond the body's recommendation to stop - does anybody remember Jim Fixx, the self-anointed guru of running? Remember him dropping from sudden cardiac death?

Ever hear of an aneurysm blowing? Ever hear of falling off the cliff face you're climbing? There are actual limits, and fatal consequences.

Apr. 24 2010 04:35 PM
David Bockoven

Reply to Michelle's distaste for the show's style:

Yes. I'm irritated too. I think of it as an attempt at scripted "spontaneity." It would be interesting to know what sort of little group discussion of "awesome" things they are trying to replicate.

The content is still interesting enough to trigger my compulsion to tune in, though, so they're doing something right. (Congrats, guys!)

Apr. 24 2010 04:12 PM
David Bockoven

Harold Bloom, the Yale University Professor of Literature (or something like that) was reputed to read a thousand pages an hour, and be able to recite verbatim passages. Evidently he was plagued by a sort of agony of ennui, as well.

Does anybody know if I have "remembered" this factoid with much fidelity to reality?

Apr. 24 2010 03:56 PM
Bubble Buster

I think both those who disparage and those who are amazed by the last segment about Eureka are right to some degree: correlations are incredibly useful. First of all, if a computer can find F=ma in short order, it can save us lots of time in finding useful correlations with results in the real world. Example? we still don't understand gravity (!) but we use the well understood 'laws' of gravity to perform amazing feats of engineering.

That said, mathematical equations are simply descriptions of reality as we see them. F=ma has its limits too, and they were unknown till Einstein came around, and knew what to look for. The 'insight' is simply understanding the mechanism, which can then be explored in greater detail to discover more things we don't understand... So, it's all still useful because we can use it, but eventually there will be things that a single person can't 'understand' because... life is too short. Artificial intelligence is therefore incredibly important and possibly inevitable (even if we can't 'understand' right now how to create it...).

from Websters:
queer Pronunciation: \ˈkwir\
2 a : differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal

You can continue to use queer for yourself, if you like it, or not, as you please--but don't take it personally when it's original meaning is used.

Apr. 23 2010 10:40 PM
a g

sugar metabolism through oral{normal} delivery,is completely different from an intramuscular shot. to equate these as equal is beyond silly and idiotic. in addition the sugar of complex carbs are superior[and essential] to any junk health drink. but you don't distinguish between these and green tea with lemon juice,electrolyte heaven. you accept your "scientists" conclusion as if he were the high priest of knowledge. BTW- you do very much project gratuitous sillines.

Apr. 23 2010 08:15 PM

Argh, although I love the subject matter, I am so super annoyed with the whiny self entitled sounding voices, the stupid way they have of repeating each other, and laughing. It's frustrating because the subject matter is super interesting, but the annoying speech mannerisms !! I see so few people come out to criticize that; do people really like this style of talking ? Why ???

Apr. 22 2010 12:01 PM

About 15 years ago I took a math class in college, and my class kept hearing loud outbursts of laughter down the hall. I thought that was a really strange thing until I got to take the College Algebra course that was the source of all that laughter. One time my teacher was showing us irrational numbers. The equation was 20 digits long, so he told us a really funny story that broke the numbers up into pieces. I'm sure we all remembered the equation, at least until the test was done!

Apr. 19 2010 10:09 PM
Alejandro M

Great episode! The last section on memory brought to mind a Borges story from 1942, "Funes, the memorious", which deals with most of the themes in this section
(see Most interestingly Borges also discusses his character's difficulty in generalizing and the use of seemingly pointless enumeration schemes.
According to wikipedia Borges may have heard about the case of Solomon Shereshevskii (and many of his stories were loosely based on historical figures), but the book by A. Luria on the issue was published 26 years after Borges' story was published!

Apr. 19 2010 09:28 PM

I'm so happy that others saw the Hitchhiker's Guide similarities there. We're close to inventing "Deep Thought!"

Apr. 19 2010 02:59 PM

Hey Krulwich,

what's up with using Queer to mean strange? I thought you'd be above that :(

Yours sincerely,
Wolfie (a real live queer)

Apr. 19 2010 02:18 PM

Great show! One interesting thing about synesthesia and memory. My wife has both synesthesia (numbers and days of the week have colors) and remarkably good memory, although not as good as the people you profiled. But she also has dyscalculia, an inability to do arithmetic well, as a consequence of her synesthesia. Instead of the digit "4" giving her an intuitive sense of "fourness" or "about this many", it gives her a sense of "green" (or whatever). So when trying to remember 4+7=11, it makes no sense at all that green+orange=blackblack. Still, she never forgets phone numbers!

I've read a bit of the academic literature on synesthesia, and this association among the condition, excellent memory, and dyscalculia has been observed anecdotally but not really studied systematically.

Apr. 17 2010 07:42 PM

I am a relative new comer to RadioLab. This past episode was very enjoyable and so good to listen to I could not turn it off.

I wanted to comment though because I thought it missed an important point in the segment about the bike ride across America: the man who stopped riding his bike after he checked his email, he was abruptly reminded of the limits of the human body and therefore may have been spooked into not continuing the ride. The man who won the ride was not reminded of his own mortality, an undeniable limit to all beings, and therefore was able to fight off his 'governor' for the length of the ride. I think that being reminded of your humanness in these situations is a huge and powerful limit that is not so easily overcome.

To me, this was the big takeaway from the segment, not so much that the one person could go to incredible feats of strength and endurance but more that being reminded of your limits has an incredible amount of power as well.

Apr. 14 2010 10:23 AM

I really enjoyed the Limits podcast. I found the third part about the limits of science particularly interesting.

Apr. 13 2010 08:50 PM

@Alex. Aaaah. Thank you. I missed that part.

Apr. 13 2010 06:19 PM

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of hitchhiker's at the end. Even google knows the answer!

Apr. 12 2010 02:08 PM
Sean Robinson

Great episode. This episode's discussion of marathon cyclists and limits made me wonder if you guys are ever going to use Michael Shermer in a story- his book Why People Believe Weird Things is a wonderful primer on scientific thought and the (ir)rational brain.

Apr. 12 2010 02:08 PM

Douglas Adams was brilliant satirist as much as prescient predictor of our eventual technological capacity (insofar as Deep Thought is like Eureqa). The unfathomably simplistic answer of "42" and the consequent quandary that faced the receivers of the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything in H2G2 is partially intended to make us aware that we are limited in our abilities of comprehension. But it's also there to show that meaning is not inherent in an answer. 42 is the answer to uncountable questions (e.g. "What is six times seven?", "What number is this comment?") and Douglas Adams chose it bearing this fact in mind; consider that if the answer Deep Thought gave was a calculus equation 50,000 pages long, the full insight of his satire might be lost on us poor readers, who naturally assume a result so complicated is likely to be accordingly meaningful, when in fact it is no more inherently accurate or useful in application than an answer of 42.

Apr. 12 2010 01:34 AM

Not 'in the flesh' - 42 in the 'cold hand'

Apr. 12 2010 01:34 AM

42 in the flesh

Apr. 11 2010 12:27 PM
Dave Kliman

The segment on Eureqa really moved me... here we are... perhaps at the end of an era where we are smart enough to really understand fundamentally how an equation works that describes phenomena in the universe... I guess that wouldn't be so bad since most people can't do so even now. but the idea that nobody would be smart enough to, seems somewhat disturbing.

Of course the thing is I believe it won't be too long before we have our intelligence augmented by our own technology... mods to our minds... or downloading ourselves into software... something like that, will take us back to an era where we understand the universe around us.

Apr. 10 2010 10:29 PM

Alex. The analogy breaks down. Just exactly does "sugar in the muscles" mean? In order for "sugar" to contract muscles it must be converted into ATP or other high energy compounds. This requires both oxygen and many different enzymes. Then, for contraction to occur, many elements (calcium, sodium, potassium and others) must be present in the optimum concentrations.

It is a very complex problem and the "sugar" experiment simply shows that the availability of sugar is not the limiting part of the equation.

Apr. 09 2010 12:45 PM

@Brendan (I didn't see anyone answer you yet): So they injected sugar into the muscles directly. If the muscles simply function until they have no more energy left, then people getting sugar right into the muscles should go further; it would be like the muscle being a car engine a the sugar/energy being gas. Put more gas, car goes further. But since no one got further, then it means it's a simple car/gas analogy. So it must mean there is a moderator, like a person at the wheel of a car, deciding when to press the gas pedal or not (the 'governor' in this case, although I imagine Arnold talking to people's muscles). And to test this, they lied to the governor, telling him he's got plenty of energy coming down. Being reassured, he pressed down on the gas pedal hard.

In other news, like the engineer person said, without wanting to diminish Eureka's realizations, it seems it's just a computer being fed vectors and it just crunches data until the highest correlation is found. Which is very cool and useful but without the context of the reality it measures.. well.. meh.

Apr. 09 2010 09:40 AM

As with skipper, I also though of Douglas Adams "Life, the Universe and Everything. I will be thinking about this RadioLab show for quite a while. Rick

Apr. 09 2010 02:51 AM

I listened to this episode on my hour long bike ride home from work... I had no idea about the stories beforehand, and I found myself pushing a little harder throughout the 'race across America' story. It's funny how things work...

Apr. 08 2010 08:53 PM

Another fine episode, all.

Q: what is the music beginning just before the 51 minute mark, between the Mind and Science segments?

Any chance of including such credits, for when something unknown piques our ears?

Apr. 08 2010 10:27 AM

@ James Klock- I agree, while technology comes up with the equations to fit the data I am glad that the insight is left to the human brain. What a treat! How boring it would be to leave that all up to computers. Who would actually want that? It feels good for the moment to have the answer but when you realize that you didn't come to the conclusion and get to have that great 'Aha' moment, knowing seems almost regrettable. Getting something for free is never as good as paying for it with your own sweat and blood.

Great episode! I have been desiring over the last few years to really push myself as I never have. I am a little leery, though. Once you learn you can never go back. Will I find myself in a place of insight where I regret losing my blissful ignorance? I hope not, I will find out as I go.

Apr. 08 2010 09:49 AM

I'm just happy I was the first geek to throw out that joke.

Apr. 08 2010 04:04 AM

loooveee thisss showwww

Apr. 08 2010 01:29 AM

I'm so glad to know I wasn't the only geek thinking of Deep Thought during the last part of this episode. ;-)

On a slightly different note, this reminds me of how oddly prescient-seeming some sci-fi writers can be - even when they are writing satire.

Apr. 08 2010 12:33 AM

Great show, especially the last 10 minutes, though I suspect something has been oversimplified. Can this program/robot really predict things (any things) based on data it is fed? I realize the importance of theory in scientific discoveries (as opposed to data-driven research), but if this program works as well as the segment implies, we could do all sorts of things (predict markets, cure cancer, etc) with it. I'd love to hear a follow up or elaboration on it (haven't been able to find much online about Eureka).

Apr. 07 2010 10:12 PM
James Klock

Another great episode guys-- but that last story (about Eureka) left me thinks, "So, what's new?"

Sixteen years ago, in a junior-level undergraduate engineering course, I learned that modeling data with equations is a pretty blunt tool, incapable of providing meaning in and of itself.

More still, the more you work to make your equations fit your data, the more likely you are to be modeling noise (random variation in the data that isn't really caused by the thing you think you're looking at-- in other words, "stochasticity"!)

So, it's no wonder that the huge computing power of Eureka comes up with equations that accurately fit the data, and even have predictive power, without actually telling us anything-- and that's hardly a new process. Rather, it's been a problem for scientists, for centuries!

And thank heavens, too-- Insight is the scientist's real product, and while (like many other forms of labor) it can be made more efficient with the use of good tools, it cannot be replaced.

Apr. 07 2010 09:38 PM

I would argue that the evidence put forth in the broadcast for the central governor theory is actually evidence against such a theory. If there truly were a central governor or limiter, it would not be possible to trick it. The limits to performance are clearly multifactorial, and "self imposed" central or psychological limits are only one possible factor present in certain but not all situations. Limits change with training and experience, and this includes psychological adaptation. Ultra athletes usually have the experience to stay within their limits, whatever that is. RAAM riders cannot ride the RAAM at Tour de France speeds regardless of how much energy drink they swish in their mouth.

Apr. 07 2010 08:16 PM

I love this episode! This is the best one to so far.

I've always feel like my body is telling me to slow down and relax and I am one to always listen to my body's needs. This episode not only explains why my body does this, but more importantly it shows that if your body has food and water there are times when you need to push your body. I also think that people need to practice pushing their body to the limits. You can train your body to get use to the pain. It's really changed my perceptive of how I see my body and mind work together.

I wonder how this part of the brain affects procrastination and laziest.

Thanks guy!

Apr. 07 2010 07:34 PM

For an additional anecdote in the "Limits of the Body" theme, I highly recommend the recent TED talk from Ken Kamler, on being the only doctor during a terrifying disaster on Mount Everest's brutally cold peak. One particular individual in his tale could very well have been featured in this Radiolab episode!

Apr. 07 2010 07:09 PM

Im a tad confused about the energy drink story. The hypothesis was that the sugar travelling across your tongue when you swish would trick the governor in the brain. Why would actually drinking the energy drink not produce the same effect? Are the same receptors in the mouth ignoring the energy drink when the drink is swallowed?

Other than that, I found this deeply stimulating and interesting. Thank you!

Apr. 07 2010 06:44 PM

You wouldn't want to hang out with Jure Robic? That guy fascinates me (and frightens me, frankly.) I would LOVE to hang out with him. There's so few people like him on earth.

Apr. 07 2010 05:04 PM

Since I was listening to this episode at stupid o'clock this morning, while training for my first Ironman, the first stories were both very appropriate and inspiring.

Apr. 07 2010 04:54 PM
Frank Hieber

You should have looked into the Tour Divide Mtn Bike Race. It makes the RAAM look easy. The Tour Divide is the world's longest off-pavement cycling route. It's highlighted by long dirt roads and jeep trails that wend their way through forgotten passes of the Continental Divide. The route travels through Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and the United States of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico (map). By route's end a thru-rider will climb nearly 200,000 feet of vertical (equivalent to summiting Mount Everest from sea-level 7 times). The race is 2,745 miles long so it is shorter than the RAAM, but it is off-road, through the Rocky Mtns. Riders ride through snow, mud, gravel, all kinds of challenges that the RAAM riders will never encounter.

Apr. 07 2010 03:49 PM

I loved this episode. It got me thinking about the limits to what we can find out with mathematical models. I know enough stats to realize that what the researchers are doing is a fancier version of what ecologists do all of the time with simpler mathematical models... use data to try to find correlations and causal relationships and select the best model for the system they are studying. One problem often encountered is that you didn't measure the right things... B goes up when C goes down because of thing A, which you didn't think to measure (or might not even know exists). There is also the "Pineapples in Panama" problem... in an attempt to explain some problem you measure everything in the universe and you find that the price of pineapples in Panama is highly related to the thing you are trying to measure. The more things you throw into a model, the more likely it is that you will find an interesting relationship which is purely coincidental. So even if we could measure everything, it would be even harder to make sense of what we know.

Apr. 07 2010 02:56 PM
Euchrid Eucrow

way to dwarf the rest of the radio, guys. AGAIN! i am just wondering how you do it.

Apr. 07 2010 12:59 PM

I am so excited that I know someone in this episode: shoutout to Mike Schmidt! Actually, all of the projects in Hod's lab are cool and diverse...way to go guys!

Apr. 07 2010 02:18 AM

I would have liked a warning that the first story involved someone pooing herself. I really, really did not want to hear that.

Apr. 06 2010 11:15 PM

@Elan' @kathaclysm It's an apt reference, though the difference here is that Deep Thought from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy also understood that the humans didn't understand why the Answer is 42. It tells Loonquawl and Phouchg "the problem, to be quite honest with you is that you've never actually known what the question was."

Ultimately, it's the same idea concerning Steve Strogatz. We have the Ultimate Answer, but what about the Ultimate Question?

But... Deep Thought also said that it could design an even bigger computer to, given time, answer the Question question. It called that design: "Earth"! :)

Apr. 06 2010 06:32 PM
Holly Aliesky

Wow. Just wow. Way to set back the public's understanding of science, Radiolab. Did your producers even look at Jasper Lawrence's website or any of his partner's publications?

In less than 5 minutes discovered that Lawrence's partner Dr. Marc Dellerba has ONE peer reviewed scientific publication in the National Library of Medicine. ONE. Reputable researchers publish several, even dozens or more each year. Here it is.

Now on to the website:

Another HUGE alarm bell is Under the Disease Information+ section, Science & Experience tab

i'll just quote it:

"If you would prefer to skip reading this site and just obtain some of the scientific papers upon which our faith in this therapy is based please use our contact page to request the documents. Be sure to name your disease or conditions so we can send information that applies to you. We will also supply general information about the effects of helminthic therapy on inflammation and on the safety of helminthic therapy."

Faith, eh? Request documents....hmmm? Let's click on that contact page to obtain some peer reviewed, experimental, non-anectdotal evidence.

Again, quoted from the site:

"In our experience the best way for us answer your questions is to speak by telephone. To guide that conversation it helps to know some basic things about you in advance. To get the ball rolling, without obligating yourself in anyway, please download our download our Questionnaire. Then send us the completed form by email or fax and we will arrange a call with you to answer your questions, and ours."

You want scientific documents? How about you just call us on the phone and we can talk it over.

This is totally irresponsible. The footnote in your story about how the FDA shut down their US lab doesn't make it okay, well, for self-protecting legal purposes it does....for you.

The sensationalist appeal of psudoscience wins again. Nice work, Radiolab!

Apr. 06 2010 03:44 PM

SO glad to have you back! What an awesome, inspiring, and (as always) thought-provoking episode!

Apr. 06 2010 01:33 PM

Elan is right; in the last story it's as if they've invented Deep Thought from the HHGTTG. Next the computer will have to explain what experiment to perform that will help the mere humans understand the questions they needed to ask for which those equations are the answer to.

Apr. 06 2010 01:22 PM

Since I heard your story on hookwoorms I have been waiting to tell someone about it. Unfortunately everytime I thought about telling someone we were eating a meal, and I wanted to remain in the good graces of family and friends. Today at work I found a nurse who is as facinated by this kind of stuff as I am and I delited in telled her all of the fascinating details. Thanks for satisfying my 'ain't nature wonderful mind'

Apr. 06 2010 12:21 PM
Jonathan Warner

@Elan I was totally thinking the same thing. They've created Deep Thought!

Apr. 06 2010 12:04 PM

One of the best radiolabs yet! Awesome show guys.

Apr. 06 2010 10:31 AM
Paul May

A simply amazing episode. Amazing.

Apr. 06 2010 10:20 AM

Wow!! That's all I can say

Apr. 06 2010 07:26 AM

This episode is a fascinating take on human limits! Wonderful topic to start the new season.

One of the most interesting themes I found tying the three segments together (limits of: body, mind, science) was in the idea that our own consciousness is a primary limiting factor. The behaviors that made these people incredible, limit-breaking outliers were often attributed the lack of ego or the 'self':

In the limits of the body, Julie Moss quips that it's the ego that's the voice telling you to give up, giving you reasons to quit. The RAAM cyclists forcibly strip themselves of 'self' for the grueling endurance test; first intentionally using distractions, later forcibly as exhaustion brings hallucination.

In the limits of the mind, the flawless memory of "Mr. S", catalyzed by his synesthesia, made his circus performance unbearable because his own life memories were 'mushed' into the random thoughts of the audience each day. In the limits of science segment, in an almost ironic twist, science is literally dehumanized in the form of the Eureka robot, devoid of the structural limitations of the human condition.

This episode, especially the concluding sentiment, is challenging and thought-provoking. Thank you again, Radiolab!

Apr. 06 2010 06:17 AM
Joseph Steinberg

Using the above link for downloading the .mp3 version of the episode, I have twice tried to download the episode and it has failed both times at the 6% mark.

I'm using FF 3.6.3 with Windows XP.

Apr. 06 2010 02:10 AM

Hah! That last story--- 42!

Apr. 06 2010 01:52 AM

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