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Big Little Questions

Wednesday, December 20, 2017 - 03:12 AM

Here at the show, we get a lot of questions. Like, A LOT of questions. Tiny questions, big questions, short questions, long questions. Weird questions. Poop questions. We get them all.

And over the years, as more and more of these questions arrived in our inbox, what happened was, guiltily, we put them off to the side, in a bucket of sorts, where they just sat around, unanswered. But now, we’re dumping the bucket out.

Today, our producers pick up a few of the questions that spilled out of that bucket, and venture out into the great unknown to find answers to some of life's greatest mysteries: coincidences; miracles; life; death; fate; will; and, of course, poop.

This episode was reported and produced by Rachael Cusick, Tracie Hunte and Matt Kielty. 

Special thanks to Blake Nguyen, Sarah Murphy and the New York Public Library. 

Support Radiolab today at


Arthur Benjamin, Rosa Caballero-Li, Paula Fairfield, Adrienne Mayor, Caroline Ross, Martin Uman and Bernard Van Maarseveen

Produced by:

Rachael Cusick, Tracie Hunte and Matt Kielty


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Comments [31]

Aaron Burns from USA

Ball lighting made it to the Bing front page today! I almost wondered if radiolab helps fuel the discovery or if it was just crazy timing?

Mar. 07 2018 11:45 AM
Michael Hoff from Boxborough, MA

An alternative and perhaps more plausible explanation for lightning balls comes from Chiping Chen and D. Clint Seward. They actually produced these things in an MIT lab in the 1999 - 2000 time frame. So in my mind they are experts in this area. They claimed that the balls are revolving plasma toroids. Electrons spin in a pattern around the outer surface of a toroid of hot plasma. The electrons contain the plasma in that shape, and the spinning plasma holds the electrons in their path. The whole toroid revolves around, making it look like a ball. They called them EST: Electron Spiral Toroids.

Feb. 13 2018 03:19 PM
Whitney from Montana

I was a little disappointed by the explanation about milk and if someone might have had milk from the same cow twice. You adequately explained the large-scale dairy industry and the probability in that scenario, but you left it there and acted as if that's the only way that people today get milk. That's a pretty big disservice to small-town dairies and the people that support them. Here in Montana, I get my milk from Kalispell Kreamery which is the last family-owned dairy in our area--twenty have closed over the past fifty years. The probability that I drink milk from the same cow is, I'm sure, much higher and my milk isn't mixed and transported in the way that was described in the podcast. As a podcast with such a large audience, I would appreciate if you took the time to remember that in rural America, we don't always do things the same way and that America's current large-scale commercial agriculture is not the only way nor is it necessarily the best way to produce food in this country.

Jan. 29 2018 12:38 PM
Alexander Bogle from Saint Helena ca

I have a group of friends who saw a bunch of orbs floating along the ground in Nevada. They chased them around. But there was no storm. I know him personally. So second hand account? No friend of friend.

Jan. 23 2018 04:40 PM
Glenn from Elgin, Illinois

Had a very similar experience. Watching a storm rolling in on the 12th story of a new apartment building, a ball of light, size of a softball, hit our sliding glass door, went through it, hit the back wall, and vanished.
My roommate looked at me and said, "did you see that ?" Not only did we see it, we heard it too ! It made a loud crashing sound when it hit the glass and back wall. I will never forget that experience. Must have been ball lightning.

Jan. 21 2018 01:10 PM
Matt Glista from Chicagoland

Please tell me the Flaming Lips CD that you destroyed in the microwave was "Clouds Taste Metallic"... get it?

Jan. 19 2018 12:37 PM
Álvaro Martínez del Pozo from Madrid, Spain

Your explanation of the light balls immediatelly reminded me of the epissode entitled "Les 7 boules de crystal" by Herge, from "Des aventures de Tintin"·

Jan. 17 2018 02:50 AM

Thank you for getting back to science and away from transgender gondoliers.

Jan. 16 2018 06:57 AM
Raffy from Aruba

And could you maybe answer what you think of the cruelty implied in drinking milk? I can´t wait to see you rationalize this bit. But Who knows, you might find out it´s production has nothing to do with patting a cow on the nose and saying thank you. And maybe, just maybe, this will finally set in motion the awareness necessary to stop the industrial and inhumane production of milk and it´s side production of animal misery and cruelty, which is guaranteed to be transferred just like those indescribable thunder balls into that white mammal milk we seem to be inexplicable addicted to . Maybe. I´m hopeful.

Jan. 11 2018 07:45 AM

Does anyone know the song that was used towards the end of the explanation of the origin of Earth's name, from about 19:55-23:30? Slowly grooving drums with some light xylophone hits?

Jan. 10 2018 02:21 PM
Zac from Ann Arbor Michigan

The song "Why" is by Annie Lennox off of her album Diva.

Jan. 09 2018 03:15 PM
Me from London, UK

Presumably you've considered that the magnetron/plasma experiment and ball lightning are related?

Jan. 04 2018 10:08 AM
Wyatt Fehlhaber from Seattle Wa

I googled Storm Lacy wa 2017 heres a video of it.

We Washingtonian's don't know this but.. We get about 5 tornados a year. Most happen where there is flat farm land like in Lacy Washington.
Check out all the other storm videos that day.

Jan. 03 2018 03:31 PM
Jack from Princeton, IL

I enjoyed the podcast, but the description of how a microwave works was not up to your usual standards!
Just so you know, a water molecule looks a little bit like a Mickey Mouse hat. (the two hydrogen atoms are connected to the oxygen atom at a 60 degree angle) Since it is not symmetrical, the electric charge of a water molecule is not balanced. A microwave takes advantage of this by wiggling the ears back and forth at the perfect speed to build up heat.

Jan. 02 2018 12:31 PM
Elizabeth from Overland Park, KS

My dad and I saw ball lightning at our house when I was a teenager. If he hadn't seen it, I would have doubted what I saw, since the lightning crack woke me up. It took me forever to find out it was ball lightning. So cool to hear about someone else's experience!

Jan. 02 2018 11:59 AM
Chris from Hood River, Oregon

About the guy who never knew that the "grey" couch in their house was green; it is likely that he is slightly color blind and does not know it. Get him to take the Ishihara test.

Dec. 30 2017 11:56 AM
DolphindDave from Chelsea, Manhattan, Turtle Island

In regards to the origin of Fire breathing dragons. I suggest an alternative explanation. The Game Telephone. In Asia there are several species of snakes that spit venom. As travelers returned from areas where these live. Perhaps their tales morphed from "There are snakes that spit venom" into "there are scaly monsters whose mouths spit burning liquid." To "giant dragons that breath fire" The earliest example in western lit is Gilgamesh.

Dec. 29 2017 11:04 AM
Davo from Brisbane, Australia

My biggest disappointment with this episode was too few questions were addressed. I was expecting, question - answer (detail where the answer needed it) - move on - repeat.

There was a lot of detail which dragged each answer out unnecessarily - I know this works quite well when you’re drilling into one interesting topic, but I felt cheated by all the white-space.

Wow - sparking capsicum - gotta give that a go!

Dec. 26 2017 12:37 AM

song at end: artie shaw's "begin the beguine" with heavy reverb

Dec. 24 2017 01:39 PM
Ann from PA

neat segment on microwaves! It was fun to hear a word that I use in my everyday work live, that the general publice doesn't normally know. that word (and device) is Magnetron!
Magnetrons are still used in Radar to this day! The company I work for makes and refurbishes Magnetrons for government use in radar systems. We also make and refurbish industrial magnetrons for industrial microwave ovens (we affectionately call these the 'Bacon Cookers'.) We also make and refurbish magnetrons for use in medical devices.

I can say that any of the magnetrons you would find in a home microwave oven is most likely made in India or China.

Dec. 23 2017 07:36 PM
-A (the dash ain't silent) from Bay Area

What is the name of the song at the very end??? The hazy distant beautiful melody ????

Dec. 22 2017 12:38 AM
John from OH

Oh, that microwave segment was annoying. You all sound so insufferable! And you all think you're very funny!

Dec. 21 2017 03:45 PM
paul from Philly

This episode feels somehow like RadioLab getting back to its roots. Even though the stories are, by nature of the theme of the episode, not necessarily thematically connected, it just feels like good old fashioned RL. Great work, guys!

Dec. 21 2017 10:24 AM
Geoff from Denmark


Am I the only person that listened to this episode and wanted to introduce Martin Uman to Caroline Ross? Her descriptions of the why we see sparks on a pepper in a microwave oven sounded an awful lot like that which Martin is trying to duplicate in a lab...


Dec. 21 2017 10:06 AM

I believe the song with the "why" over and over is Questions by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment off their album Surf.

Dec. 20 2017 11:09 PM
Donald from Washington state

Dec. 20 2017 08:44 PM
MikeB from SF

May I just say, this episode had the best transitions of any episode I have heard on Radiolab. Everyone loves that classic dreamy hazy thought provoking sound yall normally end a segment with, but this episode was even more on-point. That Jeopardy sequence gave me anxiety. Well done transition guy, or gal.

Keep up the good work,



Dec. 20 2017 07:09 PM
Branford from Kansas City

The "why" song sounded a lot like Jamila Woods to me.

Dec. 20 2017 05:48 PM
Pete from Boise, ID

Concerning the story of Marie & Zack's and the microwaved peppers. Never heard of this before, but about 5 years ago, moved into a new-to-us house. My son had given me some Carolina Reaper peppers and I was going to try my hand at drying them. I sliced them up and spread them on a cookie sheet and just let them hang out in my conventional oven at its lowest temp (170'F) for several hours, then removed them to cool. Once cool, I felt they could use some more drying time, so I put them on a paper towel on a plate, you guessed it, into the microwave. I set the controls for 5 minutes on high and went about my other business in the kitchen. I was standing about 10 feet away near the sink after about 90 seconds and I hear this loud, pulsating buzz coming from the microwave. I rush over there and the whole interior was illuminated with a plasma ball and fire. I opened the door to remove the flaming mess and move to the sliding door nearby to move it outside as I didn't want to pollute the entire volume of my home with the smoke. Successfully placed it outside and returned to the house. My assumption was that the pepper got so hot that it ignited the paper towel and once the flame was established (a type of plasma, very conductive) the microwave radiation was interacting with the flame. This is likely true, but I had no idea that the pepper itself was contributing to this overall effect. And here is the plot twist: the Carolina Reaper is an extremely HOT variant and the the process gasified the capsaicin in the pepper and effectively made it into tear gas. My initial concern was the smoke from the burning paper towel, but of much greater impact was the fact that I gassed myself while trying to dry peppers. Lesson learned and the pepper-drying project was a bust. Thanks RadioLab and Marie & Zack.

Dec. 20 2017 05:28 PM

I am going crazy trying to find the song featured in this episode ( female singer repeating “why”). Does anyone know it?

Dec. 20 2017 03:48 PM

what's the name of the song featured a couple times in this episode with the word "why" repeated over and over? I've heard it before and would love to know the name/artist.

Dec. 20 2017 12:09 PM

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