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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 [29]

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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