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Bigger Little Questions

Friday, December 22, 2017 - 03:59 AM

We're back with Part 2! When we dumped out our bucket of questions, there was a lot of spillover. Like, A LOT of spillover. So today, we’re chasing down answers to some bigger, little questions.  

This episode was reported and produced by Annie McEwen, Bethel Habte, Latif Nasser, Matt Kielty, Simon Adler and Tracie Hunte.

Special thanks to Stephen Brady and Staff Sergeant Erica Picariello in the US Air Force's 21st Space Wing.

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Gabriel Barrie, Peter Barry, Arne Hendriks, Tom McCollom, Destin Sandlin, Sir David Spiegelhalter and Lt. Colonel Mia Walsh

Produced by:

Simon Adler, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen and Latif Nasser


More in:

Comments [47]

Peter Brandt from Woodstock NY

Love your show, especially about odd interesting things like the little boy asking "why is earth called Earth?"

Here's another such question: Why do we itch ?

My theory is that the 'nerves' in that itchy spot lost their orientation as to where they are and what they are doing there,
then you scratch, and it puts those nerves at rest and satisfied what and where they are.

Any better thoughts as to why we itch?

Feb. 14 2018 10:07 AM
Susan from Westchester County

I've listened before but truly enjoyed today's show. I also wanted to add to the commentary on the "Why is the Earth named Earth?" I'm not sure if it's relevant, or just a side note, but in Spanish (and similarly in other Romance language, I assume) we say Tierra. This word means soil, relates to the planet, and also means home (as in home country or land). Gloria Estefan has a song, for instance, called "Mi Tierra," referring to her home/native land of Cuba. I also recall that many people's surnames often related to their birthplaces or places from which they derived. I wonder therefore, if Earth may have also gotten it's name from this other meaning indicating that Earth is our home. This makes sense to me as to why the other planets have celestial and divine names, while the planet Earth maintains a more humble and grounded title.

Feb. 12 2018 09:41 PM
Matt from Oregon

Another request for music credits! John from Philadelphia, that song at 16:30 actually starts all the way back at 13:56,and I am infinitely curious as to who it is. Help, anyone?

Feb. 12 2018 05:51 PM
Jim A from Connecticut USA

I really enjoyed the episode, but wanted to address a side comment made during the fatberg/fat island conversation, about fat being used as a primitive form of soap. Rubbing fat on your body, even under water, will just make you greasy (or greasier). Soap was historically made at home by combining animal fat (tallow) with lye (sodium hydroxide), which can be easily extracted from wood ash.

Combining tallow and lye in the correct proportions yields soap and glycerol, a common food additive. The process is known as saponification, and there's a good explanation of it here:

Chemically, soap consists of long fatty acid chains with sodium atoms attached to one end. The non-sodium end of the chain is called "hydrophobic" because it repels water but dissolves in greasy, water-repellent materials chemically similar to itself. The sodium end of the chain, OTOH, is "hydrophilic" -- it readily dissolves in water. Soap works by anchoring the hydrophobic ends of its molecules to greasy stuff on your body and then allowing water to grab their hydrophilic ends and drag them (and the grime) away.

Feb. 12 2018 04:31 PM
Stephen from nyc

Regarding Simon Adler's piece and Flip from the Netherlands comment, I have often wondered about this because I have "noticed" the phenomenon myself riding a bike (or walking) on the Riverside Park path by the Hudson in NYC. It always appeared weird to me that so many times, three independent actors crossed the same spot at the same time. I almost completely buy his Knightship's explanation. However, Is it possible that while probability will predict that this event will happen a certain number of times in an hour, that there is a human influence that causes the increased precision of the coincidence? For example, as the actors approach each other, there is a kind of gravitational pull that causes them to clump; OR: that as the actors approach each other, they slow down for some reason, like safety, until they coincide and then pass each other safely. Probability may be the macro phenomenon but maybe there is a human micro phenomenon occurring as well.??????

Feb. 11 2018 10:53 AM
Bob Schmidt from hudson, WI

Regarding terminal velocity and breaking 100 mph on an inner tube. The fastest non-motorized speeds achieved are by speed skiers who surpass terminal velocity. I think the record is now about 152 mph.

Feb. 11 2018 08:29 AM
Kristine M Hinrichs from Milwaukee, WI

WOW! What a treat! Tim and Mary Jo Adler were friends of ours when I lived in Eau Claire 30+ years ago. Great to hear his voice!

Feb. 10 2018 02:35 PM from Beautiful Beulah Michigan

The guy with the question about tubing down a mountain going over 100... How far does a skydiver have to fall before passing 100 mph holding a tube/sled? If less that 23k feet, then technically the skydiver's answer is valid, because that's how high the highest mountains on Earth are. If the skydiver is able to go over 100 mph in less than 4100 feet, then that's conclusive, because 4100 feet is the longest vertical drop on Earth, at Mt Thor in Canada. Turns out terminal velocity can be achieved in about 2000 feet. If the tuber/sledder is wearing a parachute, then they could theoretically survive a 100 mph tube ride as a parachute only needs about 1200 feet to deploy, leaving a whopping 1800 feet to land safely.

Feb. 09 2018 04:42 PM
Lou Mac from New Hampshire

Here's another "Is it just me or...?" question similar to Simon Adler's father's question. For me, when I travel under street lights they often go out. Then, I'll see in my rear view mirror they go back on. I presumed this happens often and other people just don't notice. But, anytime it has happened to me when other people are around, they insist they've not seen it happen before. One time, on a business trip, I was standing in front of a restaurant with 2 other people waiting for a taxi when the street light went out. I told them to wait a few seconds and it would come back on. When it did, they both stepped back away from me with looks of horror on their faces. I should probably include the fact that the street light in front of the house I grew up in (in a small town northwest of Boston) frequently went out. We (my mother, actually) often had to call the town to request it be fixed. It was never broken (not like anyone threw a rock at it) just non-functioning.
I guess the question is...Do some people (like me) have some sort of electro-magnetic field that affects their surroundings? Or, is everybody else just super-unobservant?

Feb. 07 2018 04:01 PM
D Morgan from Connecticut

Outro music (1:06) is on Sound Cloud:

Nice job by the RadioLab anonymous mashup artist!!

Feb. 07 2018 12:56 AM
dennis morgan from Connecticut

You can find the Outro on Sound Cloud at:

I must have listened to it 10 times the first time.

Nice job anonymous mashup artist!!

And yes, music credits on the podcasts would be a good thing.

Feb. 07 2018 12:50 AM
anonymous from Boston, MA

If you guys ever want to dig deeper into the space debris question, I would reach out to Dr. Moriba Jah at the University of Texas at Austin. In fact he has a TEDx talk on this subject that you can see on youtube right now.

Feb. 06 2018 09:19 AM
Laura Nash from Sydney Australia

The croony "why" song is annie lennox "why". Was driving me crazy finding it.

Feb. 04 2018 11:48 PM

The Earth one was pretty cool and it was interesting to hear a real knight for the first time.

Also I think most of the fats in London's sewers came from soap lather from bathing and washing dishes and laundry (they're basically fatty acids right - except detergents)

Nice one

Jan. 26 2018 11:13 PM
Dan from Phoenix

Just listened to this podcast and had to add my comment on Simon Adler's father's rare events.

As Flip says, you have to consider that Simon's dad is always where he is, but you ALSO have to consider that he's always moving, as are the other people, at different speeds (sometimes very different, if you're considering cars, bicycles, and pedestrians) and in different directions, but all along the same path.

Consider that traffic can be modeled as entering a pipe and exiting the pipe at some access point, (most people don't go off road), and the pipe is generally longer for a lonely country road than for a road on a city grid (there are fewer places to turn off), and about equal numbers travel in one direction as the other (or else everyone would end up in the ocean). The question is not how often will three people be in one point at the same time. It's rather, how often will one person enter the pipe going one direction, and not exit before another person enters the same pipe going the other direction. Once that happens, they will meet up. It is inevitable. Since Simon's dad is already there, that's his 3 person synchronicity right there.

Now, if you only consider people moving the same direction as you, it happens less often and the modeling is more complicated, but the greater the difference in speed is, the more likely it is to happen.

Jan. 26 2018 03:46 AM
Sean from Oregon

Using some of the info provided in the podcast and some assumptions on the snow/tube friction, one can come up with a reasonable estimate for the slope of the mountain needed to reach 100 mph.

As the terminal velocity for the tube and rider in freefall was given at a low end of 120 mph, the coefficient of drag can be calculated for which I found it to be around 1.2. Using the drag coefficient and a coefficient of friction value of 0.3-0.6 for rubber and snow, the calculated minimum slope from the horizon is around 60 to 70 degrees. Quite steep, but still possible.

Jan. 24 2018 06:51 PM
Jessica from Alameda, CA

Thank you, Radiolab, for shining a brighter light on the "Space Junk" issue!
Thank you also HUMANS! In a broad stroke of benevolence you’ve saved the Universe from your super colossal horribleness & destruction by unwittingly imprisoning yourselves!!! Great job! Your welcome Universe!

Jan. 23 2018 04:27 PM
Jordan from Brooklyn NY

Great episode! Also I really enjoyed the music mashup around 45min in, which included the Beastie Boys' "I Don't Know," which is one of my favorite songs.
Any chance of getting a copy of this mashup?

Jan. 22 2018 01:17 PM
Mike Wiltse from Maine

Just listened to Simon Adler’s piece about his father and traffic. I’ve noticed this my self and came to the conclusion that all parties involved slow down in anticipation of the dangerous intersecting of traffic and pedestrians thus increasing the chance of it happening to the point where it becomes inevitable.

Jan. 16 2018 03:01 PM
John from Philadelphia, PA

Radiolab needs to start releasing music credits for their episodes! Half these comments are about song identification.

Here's another, song at 16:30 anyone?

Jan. 12 2018 11:57 AM
Arenda from Florida

This was an awesome episode.
I especially loved Jad’s sons question and the explanation.
The sound effects and music were exceptional in this episode.
One of my favorites!

Jan. 12 2018 06:39 AM
sharon from Platte City MO

I don't have a question about the moon or stars but I do wonder how to put my 96 yr old mother at ease about dying. She is not the most religious human ever although we were raised Catholic (probably our downfall). I've never been here before and neither has she. I am sole caretaker -- so no other family wishes to participate altho they are out there physically.

Jan. 11 2018 04:19 PM
Jacob Børninck from Denmark

Loved the episode, and great editing.

If possible, can we get the name of the song in the mix going "why" in a soft voice @ almost exactly 39:00 minutes in?

Jan. 10 2018 12:33 PM
Kristal from Cape Girardeau, MO

The conversation between Jad and his son was so special. Thanks for that tiny peek into your life!

Jan. 09 2018 01:05 PM
Kyle D Horne from ATX

So make a spacecraft with a magnetic field on the end of it.

Jan. 08 2018 02:43 PM

The Kesseler effect is very real. ISS has had damage from space debris, Space shuttle has too. Wikipedia cites an article that states 1 satellite is destroyed every year, contributing to the debris field of 600,000 objects 1-10cm, and millions smaller.

When moving at those relative speeds, even tiny, tiny bits of debris can cause problems and the debris isn't decreasing appreciably.

There is an 18,000+ lb satellite that has multiple near-misses every year by other large pieces of debris and could become a catalyst for the runaway destruction. China has tested anti-satellite missiles that create huge debris clouds.

Not good.

Jan. 08 2018 01:46 PM
Casey from Mountain View, CA

In regards to Satellites and Kessler Effect: We don't need to be super fearful of this. Here's a thought experiment to help show why. Consider, there are roughly 52,000 merchant ships that travel around an ocean surface area of ~510 million square kilometers. If these ships are traveling in random linear paths (great circle distances) similar to orbiting objects, what are the likelihood they will run into each other? Not very likely. Now consider that the surface area of a sphere is 4πr^2. So as we expand our thought experiment sphere out to low Earth orbit not only is that surface area growing to accommodate all land mass too, but also by a power of r^2. We are just basically saying, in a fancy way, "there's a lot of space in space". Now, these 20,000 orbiting "ships" in space are going a lot faster than a ship on the ocean. And this adds a non-negligible complexity to our thought experiment. A complexity that makes the Kessler Effect an idea certainly worth putting thought into. However, there are many other extremely low probability space problems probably worth putting more thought into, like what should we do if we detect a large asteroid heading towards Earth? Or better yet, high probability Earth problems, like how can we slow climate change? Additionally, there are several private companies and theoretical NASA missions that have put significant thought into how to gather and eliminate space debris. So I'm optimistic that when the need arrives or economic motivation is there, humans will be capable of removing space debris.

Jan. 06 2018 07:18 PM
Amanda Brown from Florida

I am disappointed with the inaccuracy of describing 'fatbergs' in this episode. They are not just globs of fat that clog old brick sewers in London, but they are giant blobs of grease, hair, and baby wipes that wreck havoc all over the United States as well, costing millions. A fatberg of an opportunity was missed to educate the public about how wipes are not flushable and that flushing them as well as grease and hair cost us millions in taxpayer dollars. Describing them as was done on this episode isn't only misleading, but dismissive of a serious issue that threatens our public sewers.

Jan. 05 2018 03:51 PM
Jim Salacain from Middleburg, VA

I noticed a curious pairing of the satellite collision (Kessler effect) question being aired just prior to the statistical coincidence question. In the latter story, Radio Labs sought out the assistance of a noted statistician who provided a cogent analysis of seeming improbable events which turn out to actually be probable. This in contrast with the former study in which a somewhat hysterical (my opinion) reporter spent the whole story failing to provide meaningful analysis of the incredibly low probability that to orbiting objects in a collision will cause a cascade of other collisions resulting in a complete coverage of the orbital domain with space debris. The reporter, had he commanded any physics knowledge or even sought out knowledgeable sources ( the Air Force officer was more concerned about expressing opinions vs. facts) would realize that 1) orbiting collisions of large satellites have occurred in the recent past without causeing a recreation of the movie Gravity and 2) the fragments that result from a collision have less energy than they possessed prior to the collision and also less momentum and their orbit quickly degrades until the satellite pieces burn up in the atmosphere. Also, the half million objects the Air Force officer referred to, if spread around the globe at 200 mile altitude would each be separated from one another by miles so the likelihood of such a collision, though not zero, is pretty small.

Jan. 04 2018 03:50 PM
Chris Meldrum from Portland, OR, USA

Fantastic episode!
For your producer Simon Adler.

Please let your father know, he is not alone in the curious events of intersections. I've been wondering about this myself with an endless amount of random experiences.
I feel he maybe needs to hear this.

Side note: I suppose analysis from a statistics or mathematical perspective is also a structure of belief.
A rabbit hole...What is belief and how do we justify truth? Do other creatures do this?

Thank you for all your highly entertaining exploration and discovery!!

Jan. 04 2018 12:23 PM
ajckid from Washington

Response to Al:

Songs in the little mix in the middle of the episode:
"Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash
"I Don't Know" by Beastie Boys
"Please Tell Me Now" by Billie Holiday
"Is There Something I Should Know" by Duran Duran

Songs in the mix at the end of the episode:
"What She Came For" by Franz Ferdinand
"King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar
"Big Poppa" by The Notorious B.I.G.
"Why, Oh Why" by Woody Guthrie
...not entirely certain what the croony "whyyyy" is from

Hope that helps.

Jan. 03 2018 11:41 AM
Ori from Haifa, Israel

While listening to the podcast I noticed the image of this chapter was taken in Haifa, the city I am in right now.
Consider the fact that this city is not a very large one, less than 1M people and is located in Israel, nowhere near the podcast base, NY USA, I would say it is a very unlikely coincidence....

I know what Sir David Spiegelhalter would say about it, but I prefer Simon Adler's father's point of view :-).

Jan. 03 2018 08:46 AM
Chris from Philadelphia, PA

I would also like to chime in with Jack from Princeton, IL. The terminal velocity is some (however complicated) function of the slope of the mountain. Suppose that at 90 degrees (free fall), the raft is able to reach 120 mph. On the other hand, at 0 degrees (flat land), the raft will clearly go 0 mph if only under the force of gravity. With these two simple observations, we can conclude that there is some slope between 90 degrees and 0 degrees at which the raft will just reach 100 mph. Determining what this angle is -- and whether such an angle is consistent with the spirit of the question (i.e., whether a believable mountain could achieve such an angle) -- remains to be determined! I think Jad gave up a bit too soon...

Jan. 03 2018 06:55 AM
Jack from Princeton, IL

I think Jad let his emotions get in the way of the "snow-tubing" question. If the tube could not reach 100mph in free fall, then the question would be settled as impossible.
Since the speed is attainable using gravity only, the next step would be to introduce some amount of drag due to snow, to see if the speed could still be maintained. I would have suggested looking at the amount of drag on smooth ice. If that dropped the speed below 100mph, the question would be answered - impossible.

Jan. 02 2018 01:54 PM
alex p

well i guess Fat finally got what it deserved:

Dec. 29 2017 06:55 AM
Arlene Montemarano from Maryland

Question on the "art" project of building an enormous fat island. What happens when you finish? Do you just leave it there? Has any thought been given to the impact on the environment?

Dec. 27 2017 02:37 PM
Eileen from Brooklyn, NY

Is there a way that we can get a standalone mp3 download of the song used at the end of this episode? It was great!!! Was it an original mix? Wonderful work. Great way to end the year.

Dec. 27 2017 01:14 PM
Steve Zimmermann from Green Bay, WI

Wow! What was up with the long pauses and even some other guy answering in place of Lt Colonel Walsh when asked about the Kessler effect? It seemed like a pretty straightforward and interesting concept but the colonel and the other guy acted like they were just caught with their hands in the cookie jar up to their elbows.

Dec. 24 2017 11:50 AM
Dr Loo from Oakland Park - Florida

I have a question! I have been thinking....for years. Knowing that Cayrel's Star photons traved for 12.5 billion years until it -- FINALLY -- reached our telescopes. In order to get detected, traveling at the speed of light, the photon impacted the lenses with some energy. How, after billion of years and moving thru trillion and trillions of miles of space, the photon was able to still have enough energy to exite to photon detectors?

Dec. 23 2017 07:30 PM
Al from Winnipeg

Would I be able to get a list of the songs used in this? There was one in particular with people going "why" a lot, and I thought it sounded pretty neat :) Thanks!

Dec. 23 2017 01:31 PM
Flip Schrameijer from Amsterdam, Netherlands

About the synchronicity-thing (chance that three moving objects on an otherwise deserted road meet each other within a 5 second window) it seems you overlooked one thing: observer bias. When you look at the scene from high above chances seem smaller that three things meet, than when you are one of them. On the ground there is a meeting of two each time you meet one. This however isn't true, but only seems that way. Reminiscent of the metaphor of a golf ball landing on a blade of grass, which makes that one of a billion blades of grass in a golf link exclaim "OMG what are the chances it landed right here on me?" Just as small as anywhere else: it's just perception.

Something else is that the driver can (and mist probably will) influence the 5 second window by speeding up or slowing down, which may make a statistically significant difference.

Dec. 23 2017 07:22 AM

How many vertical feet were required to accelerate faster than 100 mph when jumping out of a plane with an inter tube, and are there any steep sections of mountain on the planet earth that would plausibly create the conditions that would allow for acceleration to 100 mph or more in the distance that is needed to accelerate.

Dec. 22 2017 06:39 PM
John from OH


Dec. 22 2017 04:43 PM
Anonymous (again) from California

Apologies, my earlier comment was meant for "Big Questions" and I posted here by mistake. This episode was also fascinating, and I am grateful you left the pauses in the interview regarding the Kessler Effect. Also my book recommendation is even more relevant and still stands ;)

Dec. 22 2017 03:46 PM
jeremy from st paul MN

Oh those pauses! so uncomfortable! Thanks for leaving in those tension-filled, accurate moments

Dec. 22 2017 02:31 PM
Jesse Wickstrum from St. Petersburg FL

I frantically stopped the Bigger Little Questions podcast after the suspenseful pause from the Commander of the 18th Space Control almost seems like they think the domino/ Kessler effect has already begun?

Dec. 22 2017 01:13 PM
Anonymous from California

This was a great episode! I learned many new things and find it wonderful that the New York Public Library provides such a service. This episode also reminded me of a book I read this past year: "What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions" by Randall Munroe.

Dec. 22 2017 12:42 PM

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