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Funky Hand Jive

Wednesday, April 26, 2017 - 02:00 AM

(Photo Credit: Associated Press/Associated Press)

Back when Robert was kid, he had a chance encounter with then President John F. Kennedy. The interaction began with a hello and ended with a handshake. And like many of us who have touched greatness, 14 year old Robert was left wondering if maybe some of Kennedy would stay with him.  Now, 50 years later, Robert still finds himself pondering that encounter and question. And so with the help of brand new science and Neil Degrasse Tyson, he sets out to satisfy this curiosity once and for all. 

Produced by Simon Adler with help from Only Human: Amanda Aronczyk, Kenny Malone, Jillian Weinberger and Elaine Chen.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's newest book is called "Astrophysics for People in A Hurry."



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Dr. Siobhan Dolan, Jack Gilbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Produced by:

Simon Adler


Amanda Aronczyk, Elaine Chen, Kenny Malone and Jillian Weinberger


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Comments [48]

tex from on a flight lhr to sfo

After all the buildup about solving crimes due to the trail of bacteria, you didn't see the irony of Neil's bacteria not being transferred? He could commit a crime and leave no trail, while others would leave many long lasting bacteria and be frequent suspects or worse convicted unfairly.

Makes me wonder if some people also leave a dna, fingerprint, or other evidence trails less or more easily than others...

Dec. 14 2017 05:17 AM
Brian from Denver

I'm just guessing, but I suspect that part of the difference in transfer might relate to the respective "sweatiness" of the particpants. Some people exude very little moisture from their skin and some of us, myself for instance literally drip sweat from our hands at times...even when I'm not exercising. If DeGrasse-Tyson doesn't smell after 5 days, he probably doesn't sweat that much either.

Nov. 06 2017 12:04 AM
Brian from Denver

I'm just guessing, but I suspect that part of the difference in transfer might relate to the respective "sweatiness" of the particpants. Some people exude very little moisture from their skin and some of us, myself for instance literally drip sweat from our hands at times...even when I'm not exercising. If DeGrasse-Tyson doesn't smell after 5 days, he probably doesn't sweat that much either.

Nov. 06 2017 12:02 AM
Jan from Germany

Considering that JFK probably shook countless hands, the resistant bakteria could origin from his hands ;)

Oct. 27 2017 02:48 AM
Jerri from Philadelphia

My daughter and I listened to the show. She was amazed at how strange men are, how everything has to be a contest that proves your dominance. She thinks this was just the NPR-types' sport's challenge, the nerd version of arm wrestling.

Oct. 26 2017 02:43 PM
Jeremy Henderson from Riverview, FL

The majority of hand sanitizers are alcohol based, not antibiotic based, and do not contribute to antibiotic resistant germs. Neil Degrasse Tyson is a very smart man who sometimes says stupid things about subjects outside his area of expertise.

Jul. 27 2017 01:33 PM
Ralph from Florida

So intriguing. So disappointing. This episode is worthless without more handshake tests between other people.

Jul. 25 2017 08:14 AM
Nat from Chicago

I've noticed the past three or four episodes that I've listened to have all contained noticeable editing/production errors. In this case, the bit of armpit-smelling at the end was played twice, which led to the credits being cut off. The previous episodes had similar issues with some segments going on longer than intended, and other segments being cut short. I'm not sure what has changed in your process of making these episodes, but I think you need to revamp your editing to make sure these errors are caught before the episodes are posted on your site.

Jun. 29 2017 08:57 PM
Heather from Saskatoon, SK CANADA

I have to know did they swab Neil's hand a lithe later to see off any of Robert's bacteria had settled in ft hit the long haul?

May. 22 2017 02:31 PM
Carla Brown from Philadelphia

I have a hypothesis...

Skin bacteria are usually non-motile and like dry conditions however start to THRIVE in moist conditions (i.e sweat).

My guess... the transferring hand was producing a lot more sweat than the receiver. Therefore, his skin bugs were suspended in a lovely soup for transfer. It's likely that his sweat, rather than his skin bacteria, caused the massive shift in the receiver's population.

Microbiologist and bacteria lover,

Dr Carla Brown

May. 15 2017 10:15 AM
Peter Ross from San Jose

Next time you make a great little 3-minute YouTube that graciously distills an almost hour-long audio podcast only (which I had to listen to thrice to adequately process), please splash it front & center at the top of your landing page in place of the micrograph of a biome you chose instead so we don't have to risk missing it altogether or catching it after the fact, thank you.

May. 11 2017 03:11 PM

Forget about the STD's killings over the centuries before aids.
Keep shaking your hands and don't ever ask why you remain alive for another day.

May. 09 2017 08:17 PM
GTW from Edmonton, Canada

This Podcast was SUPER timely. My little girl was born 5 weeks early (Apr 22, 2017 @ 5:29am)via a last minute c-section. So, she's small to start with (3lbs 9oz), and then she didn't get her mom's bacterial push-start. I'm so curious to see how she will do as she grows up and gets older. One of the nurses and I were having the conversation about any studies that were done on c-section kids as they grow up. It's something that I'd like to look at...of course, all my free time ended when she popped her little head out of her mom's belly, so maybe in 18-32 years when she moves out of the house, I'll have a chance to look it up.

Thanks for the excellent product you constantly deliver and now that you've put together an episode that personally touched me, I have to go and donate. Please keep up the good work and I hope my small contribution helps.

May. 09 2017 02:19 PM
Art from So Cal

I found myself asking three questions that are likely not yet answered.
1. Could autism be related to a poor microbiome?
2. Could the rise in autism rates be connected to the rise in C-section rates?
3. Does taking any drug, long term, affect one's microbiome? Obviously antibiotics would but what about daily aspirin, statins or others?
As an aside, I went to a lecture by a professor from UCDavis who said that 40% of the components in breast milk are indigestible by the baby, they feed the microbiome!

May. 06 2017 01:31 PM
Reed from Salt Lake City, UT

I thought this was a fun episode and enjoyed it a lot. However, you really need a disclaimer about the "experiment". Everyone listening is probably making all kinds of wild theories about the "result". This experiment lacked proper controls and had an n of 1 (i.e., lacked replication), so any "conclusions" are just fun.

I think the comments above about moisture content are a blaring explanation for the differential transfer. This could hugely affect the result. For example, dry flaky hands could possibly slough off a lot more skin cells and therefore all the bacteria that go along for the ride; or if hands are sweaty and sticky, that would obviously affect bacterial load and adhesion. Or - if Robert is constantly moisturizing his hands with lotion, this could provide a transfer medium.

Anyway, there is probably a very good reason based in physics for the unilateral transfer. Without discussing this, I bet lots of listeners were misled about the nature of personal microbiomes. You can see in some of the comments that some people not think there is some kind of heirarchy of microbiomes. I am surprised that your microbiologist didn't bring this up.

May. 05 2017 05:53 PM
Megan P

I have to say, I'm reading the excellent We Contain Multitudes with my ten-year-old daughter right now and I was so excited to share this podcast with her. But, the further I got into it, the more I realized I wouldn't feel comfortable with her listening to it. Neil was arrogant and really (and I realize I sound like an old lady) vulgar. "Stank" has all sorts of loaded cultural implications that are really insensitive. There were weird homophobic undertones. The masculine chest-beating made me really uncomfortable. I listen to ALL your podcasts and this was the first time, as a woman, I felt like I was visiting a hostile culture. These are the kind of [man]nerisms I actively avoid encountering in my daily life and certainly don't want to share with either of my science-loving, curious, compassionate daughters. I love you, RadioLab, but this was a fail for me. It's been bothering me since I listened to it yesterday.

May. 05 2017 03:04 PM
Ecco from Detroit, MI

Is the uBiome code no longer any good? Just tried it, and it doesn't seem to be functioning

May. 03 2017 02:17 PM
Ilona Somogyi from CT

I felt compelled to ask the same question as many of you. What about children born by C section? There has been a huge rise in optional C sections and it always felt wrong and contrary to our biological natures. There should be some serious study done for health implications and correlations.

May. 03 2017 10:53 AM
Laura Villegas from Durham, NC

What about people who are born by c-secrion?

May. 03 2017 08:06 AM
Michael from Chicago

Yes, please do a follow up to tell us what happens when a child is born by C-section. Great show. There's an interesting cultural anthropological component to follow through with here concerning the multitude of life that constitute becoming human.

May. 02 2017 08:04 PM
Jay from San diego

Yay. Very cool. Thanks radiolabbers

May. 01 2017 10:40 PM
Jessamine from North Carolina

I thinking one of the most striking things in this podcast was hearing a distinguished astrophysicist talking about his b__t h__e (it won't let me type the word)

May. 01 2017 10:18 PM
R from Westland, MI

Thank you for the free kit! I'm an after-school program manager and we currently have a CSI club running. I'm going to turn this into a whole lesson!!

May. 01 2017 02:36 PM
brian from ca

Great episode, hope that there are follow up tests to see if Robert's bacteria is still with Neil.

The main takeaway for me was that there is a chance that you may forever have a piece everyone you come into contact with (scarry and cool).

May. 01 2017 10:30 AM

Neil Tyson mentioned Robert had sweaty hands, could have played a role in some sort of virulence factor?

I.E. did his sweaty hands have anything to do with the weird exchange ratio

May. 01 2017 02:34 AM
e anderson from Los Angeles

a short movie about a microbe on a grand journey:

May. 01 2017 01:47 AM
Jim G from Omaha

Maybe its all the bacteria Robert picked up when he was doing the story about the alligators in the swamp.

Apr. 28 2017 02:16 PM
Joseph Friedman from Ashland

I feel that you missed an important point (although not the main point of the show) when you mentioned how babies receive their initial bacterial bath in the birth canal. What you and the ObGyn doctor didn't discuss was the impact of the increasing number of C-sections and the impact on health that may be making. Babies extracted directly from the uterus don't get the bacteria in the same way and it is possible that the bacterial deficiency in subtle ways weakens them. Since many C Sections are highly optional, it is worth making known the potential negative impact of the procedure.

Apr. 28 2017 12:49 PM
Tim from Elk Grove, California

Maybe it was Kennedy that stuck to Robert, and stayed throughout his life until Robert shook hands with Neil, transferring some of Kennedy onto Neil. A president has to shake an awful lot of hands, from people all over the world. Perhaps his hand becomes the ultimate battle royale where only the best of the best of bacteria survive, and then those bacteria live on to conquer whatever hand they come across.

Apr. 28 2017 12:03 PM
Donna from calgary, canada

I just loved this episode. I look forward to RadioLab appearing in my podcast feed, but this one I've listened to twice. So much fun!

Apr. 28 2017 10:55 AM
Elaine from Only Human

G from Hand: the long-awaited video is up!
Joseph from Ann Arbor: check it out, it gives that closure you wanted!

Apr. 28 2017 10:43 AM
Anne Smith from Sacramento, CA

I'd have loved for you to have tested Neil again subsequently to see whether his biome was affected over a longer time. You speculated about it, but you could still test it! Are the bacteria from Robert still on Neil now? How dispersed are they?

Apr. 27 2017 03:17 PM
Kuba from Poland

Maybe the moisture of hands has an effect on microbes exchange during handshake? If you have wet hands you would leave more microbes on other persons hand and you would receive less. It can be also other way around - wet conditions on your hand would be better for new microbes.

Apr. 27 2017 05:48 AM
G from Hand

someone mentioned a video?

Apr. 27 2017 04:15 AM
Ni ute crowe

As a native American, let me propose that the invasion and domination of bacteria could be indicative of a historical precedent of invasion of "whites" into other ecosystems could be a parallel?

Apr. 27 2017 01:22 AM
Joseph W. Brown from Ann Arbor MI


I loved the program, but feel you really missed on book-ending it. You start by considering how much of JFK might have "rubbed off" on you. But the experiment demonstrated that you rubbed off asymmetrically on Neil.

The (seemingly obvious) speculation is: "Robert Krulwich" may have rubbed off on JFK! The story already speculates that Robert's microbiome may persist on Neil ad infinitum. Just think: the microbiome of Robert Krulwich may have been present at every important moment of JFK's administration!

Of course, the experiment with Neil may be idiosyncratic, but the speculation (admitted as such) would have been quite fun.

Apr. 27 2017 12:01 AM
Hope Goodell from South Orange NJ

My first son was born via C-section, my second via a vaginal birth. I would love to hear a follow up give me more detail to what happens with these C-section babies Who don't get that initial microbial bath from their mothers! Our second son has been much sturdier in terms of health – any chance it's because he was the vaginal birth? Did he get an advantage? Would love for you guys do a short follow up on this aspect of the story!

Apr. 26 2017 10:48 PM
Kelley Hickel

I am intrigued by this last podcast.
I have 5 kids, with twins at the 4 and 5 place.
My twins are so amazing they are a girl, boy twin.
Tim is on the autistic spectrum.
Tim was born 7 minutes after Meredith.
I would love to be apart of the DNA swab experiment.
All 3 of us or you might believe that only one or two of us would help your experiment.
How many more germs were present when Meredith was born versus Tim?
Does this way in on Tim being on he autism spectrum?
Do you think we should test all three of us at the same time?
I would love to be apart of this new science experiment you are conducting.

Thank you,

Apr. 26 2017 09:03 PM
Randi from Tucson

I vote #2 on Dennis from Rochester's comment-it cracked me up. But I'm writing to say I think it's telling that Neil said he NEVER uses those hand sanitizers.(me neither) Robert didn't say one way or the other. Maybe Robert does use them and has developed super bugs that could take over Neil's more naturally created biome. I have a coworker who slathers that stuff on and she ends up being the one hospitalized for a MRSA infection.

Apr. 26 2017 04:46 PM
Ali T from Canada

In response to Sarebu...There was a report on a scientific show here in Canada (Découverte) discussing the possibility that children born via c-section may be more susceptible to allergies since they are not exposed to the microbiome of their mother during a vaginal birth. They referenced some US hospitals having started the practice of swabbing babies with their mothers' vaginal secretions when born via c-section.

Apr. 26 2017 03:46 PM
Sarebu from Texas

I wonder what happens to your mother bacteria during a cesarean? I have read quite a bit about a child getting their mother bacteria from the vaginal passage. If this passage isn't taken, is your child a make up of random doctors?

Apr. 26 2017 02:44 PM
Nancy JonesFrancis from Albuquerque, NM

Hey Guys, I was wondering if Robert finds he gets sick a lot, or if he uses antibacterial soaps a lot.


Apr. 26 2017 02:39 PM

Oh rats! I just had the thought that I'd be curious to see how my mom's bacteria compares to mine, but the codes ran out before I could sign my mom up.

Apr. 26 2017 12:33 PM

The ubiome worked for me. I clicked above, entered my email address, and I received an email with the code and a link to order. Click the order link, add to cart, start the checkout process, and add that code. Then I just had to fill in the shipping address, it confirmed it was free and I didn't enter any payment info, and hit submit.

Apr. 26 2017 11:01 AM
Andrew from Oakland, CA

Does Robert regularly use antibacterial soap? Is it possible that Robert's bacteria has evolved to survive harsher conditions relative to Neil's?

If so, an interesting follow up would be a follow-up trial of anti-bacterial users shaking hands with non-antibacterial users.

Apr. 26 2017 10:27 AM
Mike Gorman from Grand Rapids, MI

I wonder if Robert might have been generally more positively charged than Neil, encouraging a one-way transfer?

Apr. 26 2017 10:02 AM
Dennis from Rochester, NY

I think we learned 2 things:

1. Neil is a robot
2. JFK's microbiome took over Robert and now he is spreading the president around everywhere he goes.

Apr. 26 2017 08:23 AM

The email box only works on desktop! Might work better for mobile

Apr. 26 2017 08:10 AM

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