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Season 12 | Episode 8

Things

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(Photo Credit: Rachel Pasch/flickr)

From a piece of the Wright brother's plane to a child’s sugar egg, today: Things! Important things, little things, personal things, things you can hold and things that can take hold of you. This hour, we investigate the objects around us, their power to move us, and whether it's better to look back or move on, hold on tight or just let go.

Guests:

Craig Childs, Alison Gopnik and Vincent Liota

The Explorer's Club & The Sugar Egg

We start at The Explorer’s Club — a Manhattan mansion filled with objects from the greatest adventures of the 20th century. Will Roseman gives us a tour that brings out a 40-year argument between Robert and his wife Tamar about the power of physical things to transport us into the past. ...

Comments [27]

Object Lesson

Are we built to think that the things around us will last? Psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik tells us about a few experiments that complicate our understanding of peek-a-boo. Then she pulls us into a philosophical rabbit hole where a swamp clones Robert, Neil Armstrong writes an email, and we ...

Comments [9]

The Seed Jar

Craig Childs, Regan Choi, and Dirk Vaughan used to spend months in the isolated backcountry of the Southwestern U.S. One day, they stumbled across a rare and ancient piece of pottery, in almost mint condition. That discovery led to an argument, and a decision, that has stayed with them for ...

Comments [20]

Comments [43]

Janine from Raleigh, NC

In the Things episode, there's mention of Molly-the-producer having her own side adventure. Does that story exist anywhere?

Thank you, Radiolab, for such soul-satisfying stories. Color was the first episode I stumbled across, and I'm still fasscinated by it now, years later.

Aug. 27 2014 07:19 AM
Matt from Guildford

Anyone know the name of the music used at 58mins? I'm sure I've got it, but can't remember the title.

Aug. 15 2014 03:08 PM

Don from Seattle--

I think you're putting too much conspiracy into the collapse of the rock formation. No reasonable person is going to go to that much effort to obliterate something that nobody is even aware of.

For what it's worth, I am extremely disappointed the hikers did not report the location of the seed jar to the appropriate authorities or to the relevant Native American descendants. An artifact like that could have had profound historical and archeological ramifications, but instead of guaranteeing its survival, they selfishly kept it to themselves, to be left to the vicissitudes of nature. The situation almost would have been better if they had just taken it in the first place.

Jul. 30 2014 03:47 PM
Jonathan Voght from TriBeCa

Replicators = Stargate

Jul. 30 2014 12:04 PM
Don from Seattle from Seattle, WA

Seed Jar - I don't think the story is over until everyone takes a lie detector test. The best way to "cover up" a theft is to... Take a couple sticks of dynamite back out there, remove the seed jar, blow up the side of the cliff or whatever the void was that hid the seed jar and who's to know that it did not naturally collapse? Think about it. It earth stayed in tack for how long and then suddenly collapse shortly after the find (relatively speaking). Probably not to hard to find a buyer that will keep things a secret. Nobody knew what was in it. Could have contained something of tremendous value. Enough potential to keep somebody struggling financially up at night.

Jul. 21 2014 09:55 PM
Melinda

This episode reminded me of a book I read about a year ago entitled "Still Life With Oysters and Lemons" by Mark Doty. It's a short creative non-fiction book that delves into the relationship between people and objects - lovely and worth a read if anyone is interested.

Jul. 17 2014 01:12 AM
Sloppy from Stockholm

I really appreciated this "toe in the water" articulation of how we view things. As a carpenter/sculptor I have considered not only the things I build but the things I use and/or build to build these things. I recently saw a stone boat in Gotland which is an assembled rock formation in the shape of the boat thought to have some ceremonial or spiritual purpose. I was fascinated by the fact that by what I saw which was simply a jig that you would build a boat on. Apparently I was wrong simply because people had been buried there. Ok, but would builders not have such strong reverence for their jigs? I know I do. I even have some of my grandparents jigs.
Anyways, I could go on but thanks for this and I'd love to hear more on the same topic.

Jul. 16 2014 09:11 AM
Jacob Ian Wall from Johnson City, TN

You know what could have saved that seed jar? By reporting its location to the office of the state archaeologist. Then it could have been preserved, learned from, and perhaps even repatriated to the appropriate indigenous tribe. It could have been a cultural resource shared with the world (and really it still can be, even a broken pot can tell a story, if these people or Radiolab would do the right thing) instead of this selfish personal "moment".

Also, if you encounter an artifact out in the wilderness DO NOT MOVE IT. Even with the intention of saving it, you're destroying the context and are in some ways just as bad as people looting it for profit. If you really want to preserve the artifact, take a picture, take GPS coordinates if you can, and get that info to the state archaeology office or to a ranger if on federal land.

Jul. 06 2014 08:35 AM
Ellis from Illinois

@jake3_14 - I agree with you wholeheartedly.Your comments are rational,logical, and based on common and scientific facts.

Jun. 30 2014 05:29 PM
Lee from washington DC

I'd just like to mention that this was a brilliantly conceived, written, edited and produced story. Profoundly beautiful; a work of art for the ear.

Thanks.

Jun. 24 2014 12:42 PM
Scott Ralph

Listening to people smash things at the end was puerile and pointless.

Jun. 23 2014 01:53 PM

I couldn't agree more with Michael's comment about the use of the word "like" by the producer. It is annoying, distracting, and juvenile. It's very disappointing to hear on RadioLab. I can't believe someone on radio would have such a bad habit, but I have made the same comment on Planet Money.

Jun. 21 2014 02:44 PM
Denise from Wisconsin

Anyone else ever watch the new Doctor Who? There was a Doctor Who episode with the Swamp Gas Man thought experiment. I think it was Season 6 (?) with Matt Smith - the Rebel Flesh and the Almost People.

Jun. 20 2014 11:43 AM

The Solo Piano piece is indeed from the Nebraska soundtrack but it is the one called The Old House :-)

Jun. 19 2014 12:40 PM
MIchael Plyler from Utah

Molly needs to learn some modifying words other than "like." I can't believe that someone on public radio has such limited articulation.

Jun. 15 2014 09:26 AM
cori dantini from the palouse (washington)

poet vs. scientist - that is why this argument exists.

Jun. 10 2014 02:14 PM

If Robert and Taymar wanted to, they could end their 40-year dispute about the value of objects by reframing the disagreement. Robert needs to realize that his attachments to things is not really to things at all; rather, it’s the deeply-embedded emotions associated with memories of events in his life that the thing triggers. Robert alludes to this constantly but without the understanding that he’s unusual in the degree to which he does this. Taymar needs to realize that she has an unusual deficit in making these associations. In fact, based on Robert’s comment about Taymar being eminently sensible, I’d guess that Taymar is rather unemotional in her reaction to most events in her life and about most of her memories. Underlying all of this must be a difference in the neurology and biochemistry when consolidates their short-term memories into long term memories, which is due mainly to the hippocampus.

Personally, I feel sorry for Taymar, because she’s missing out on an important part of the human experience.

Jun. 09 2014 01:15 PM
Yvonne from Syracuse, NY

I am a big fan of Radiolab, however I thought that getting a 3D scan of the egg was a gimmick; The new thing. So when it was later revealed the egg was damaged, I thought, foolish move. Keep physical representations of memories where they are, near you, and not gild the lily.

Jun. 09 2014 11:00 AM
ai mi from Vancouver BC

.Jad, the ending with the recording of people destroying their things.. its so simple yet so powerful.
it just reached inside a corner of my psyche and ripped something out of it. that is the feeling. I dont know how else to describe it.
it felt like when something valuable is destroyed...you are not sad about the lost of the object.. but sad for the narrative which depended on the object be substantial.. valuable.and on going.. the object itself just allows a narrative to go on and on.. and with time become more and more significant.
ex. The first experience of friendship might not be as meaningful and moving if one didnt get to create another narrative of keeping the egg for over forty years to add more significance to it..
without the object the story cant go on..its over

Jun. 09 2014 04:26 AM
Jaime from Brooklyn, NY

Doug, the piano piece is from the soundtrack to the film Nebraska. It's a piece called Herbert's Story, by Mark Orton.

Jun. 08 2014 10:30 PM
Doug t from Ontario

What is the music that plays during the story of getting the egg? The solo piano piece? It is just stunningly beautiful and I want to hear it on its own. Any help?

Jun. 06 2014 04:10 PM
Alex Brooks from Kentucky

Robert & Jad - you should send the egg to a museum conservator - not a restorer! Please!

Jun. 06 2014 01:48 PM
Richard from Salt Lake City

As Dirk and Craig argued over what to do with the seed-jar, I couldn't agree with either. Having graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Anthropology, I know what I would have done. I would have informed the archaeologists up at the U. They might have come out and saved that jar.

Jun. 06 2014 09:56 AM
Brent from WA state

Robert-

Listening to your opening story of the podcast, and your fascination with things... Have you watched episodes of SyFy networks "Warehouse 13"? If you haven't seen it, you must watch an episode or two. :-)

Jun. 05 2014 07:42 PM
Cor

Anyone know the artist/name of the ambient piece playing at 58:00? Sounds like Jon Hopkins, but I don't think it is.

Jun. 05 2014 03:58 PM
Cranston

David Jay beat me to it -- the Swamp Man scenario clearly stems from Alan Moore's work with Swamp Thing. Not only is the scenario similar, but the *theme* of Moore's work was precisely the same: a character discovers that he is not physically the person he always thought he was, but a copy of that person that has absorbed all of that (dead) person's memories. "We thought the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn't. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland."

So this leads to the character's central struggle: is he Alec Holland, or is he something else? And ultimately, does that matter? I agree with David Jay -- the person who developed the thought experiment was pretty clearly referencing the comic.

Jun. 05 2014 02:44 PM
Jaggard

I agree with almost all of Bob Smith's comment; I was surprised with the egg story ending. Given the history with the maple tree, I thought he would have melted the old egg down for use in the new one and to mimic that continuity. And I also wish you would have left well enough alone in regards to the seed jar. Great episode, though

Jun. 05 2014 10:19 AM
Kevin from Michigan

Great episode. As one who's job is to preserve and repair library collections I've become increasingly aware of the impermanence of things, and aware that preservation can take various forms. The egg story is a good example - creating a new egg with another 8 yr old boy, and repairing the original egg both preserve the existence of the egg in different ways and enable different meanings. And while the seed pot story's ending was heartbreaking, it was also entirely worthwhile. The persistence of things is largely outside of our control.

Jun. 05 2014 08:02 AM
Noah from Reno

I wanted to point out that in the discussion about Robert's connection and sebsequent excitement to "things" that it's not surpising that Jad had no connection to those objects, or objects in general. But I think if you expanded the scope of "things" to include music, Jad might feel a similar way. Jad, an obvious music nut, might have certain songs that elicit the same response that Robert gets from these "things." This argument is based largely on the short you guys did about "The Dawn of Midi", where Jad was so clearly titilated, and Robert was so clearly unimpressed.

Otherwise thanks, great show.

Jun. 05 2014 01:40 AM
Peter Fairfield

Apropos Swamp Man memories and one of Radiolab's favorite things, Tardigrades: it seems that if you kill them and reanimate them, they retain long-term memory.

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/236908702_Suspended_animation_effects_on_short-term_and_long-term_positive_associative_memory_in_Hypsibius_dujardini

Jun. 04 2014 04:52 PM
Summer Crosson from Victoria, BC.

I was skeptical about the power in "things" until I saw an exhibit about segregation and the KKK in Oregon, displayed at the Portland Museum . The exhibit was eye-opening to say the least.

At the very end, they had an authentic KKK hood displayed, which was white with red embroidery. Both my husband and I looked at it, got chills, and backed slowly away.

Both of us felt that there was "evil in that object" and it was an unmistakeable energy. That moment changed my view of objects, making me a convert to the idea that objects hold a very powerful energy.

Thanks for the great podcast, you make every week better with your fantastic show!

much love.
Summer

Jun. 04 2014 01:05 PM
Paul Lockhart from Texas from Texas

The egg falling apart is sad no doubt. Three things: 1)The fact is that the event can help that gentleman in the piece about the sugar egg move on. & 2) It is kind that you are helping him get the parts put back together. Because the glued back together pieces can represent a mended heart after much heartache.
3) And there may be some awesome parallel that can be drawn between Humpty Dumpty.

Jun. 03 2014 04:42 PM
Dan H from Howell, NJ

Robert: I hate to break it to you... but if you met your wife over 10 years ago, you are no more the "collection of molecules" that went on that delightful first date than Swamp Robert is, owing to the fact that your molecules are constantly being lost and replaced as your body simply maintains itself.

See this link, or others on the topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/02/science/02cell.html

Jun. 03 2014 04:35 PM
David Jay from Orlando, FL

First of all, great episode! I had to stop the recording to shed a bit of light on one part though: the (possible) origin of the “swamp man!”

When your guest described the thought experiment, it almost exactly mirrored the origin of the comic book character Swamp-Thing (the coincidental “thing” is kind of crazy). Specifically, this how the character was reinterpreted when the notoriously “philosophical” writer Alan Moore took over (the same person who wrote the books for The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and countless other works that have found their way into Hollywood or the pop culture canon).

After doing the minimal amount of Internet research it looks like Alan Moore beat the philosopher who coined the term (Donald Davidson) by just a few years. It looks like Davidson was hiding his geekiness but was still giving comic fans a wink and a nod by keeping the thought experiment’s swampy roots.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swamp_Thing
http://www.cs.umd.edu/class/fall2012/cmsc828d/oldreportfiles/guha2.pdf

Jun. 03 2014 02:44 PM
Adam Cox from Natchitoches, LA

Big radiolab fan, but really wasn't thrilled about this episode. The story about the egg was touching (and sad of course too) but didn't seem that remarkable or radiolab-worthy to me. Doesn't everybody have some stuff like that, or at least know people who do? I have very high expectations for this show, so I'm always disappointed when things that seem obvious to me are presented as revelatory. No revelations this time around, besides that I wish I was part of the explorer's club.

Moreover, this episode could have developed into a fascinating discussion about archaeology/historic preservation, but didn't at all. Loved the destroying things segment though.

Jun. 03 2014 01:08 PM
Dave

With regards to the first story... Realizing it's the memory and the content - not the actual "thing" that interests me, I've scanned and archived 1,000s of papers (papers originally stored in boxes): wedding announcements, thank you cards, childhood art, notes from my girlfriend, school notes, etc... I can review them at will as files and I find that as satisfying as looking at the originals. Similarly, I digitized all my photos (pre-digital-camera era photos). As for things like the sugar egg, I would have shot a couple pictures of it, tagged it, and archived those images as well.

But the original egg, the original notes, the original papers: trash. Hmmmm?

Jun. 03 2014 05:04 AM
Fernando Riviera

How we as a nation became very possessive of things. Freud psychology used by his nephew to get a nation to consume
. A must see, BBC's The century of the self.

Jun. 02 2014 09:21 PM
Noah from Los Angeles

Immediately, when I began listening to this episode I remembered something I had heard of many years ago. Archaeoacoustics, although I didn't know this was the name for it, there was an ancient pot that was found and someone had the idea of using it much like the first wax cylinder records. They put a needle to the pot and found that the object held a sound recording of the background noise of the potter that was throwing the pot on the wheel. The vibrations of sounds carried through the tool that was shaping the pot. I kept expecting you guys would unleash this awesomeness at any minute, but, you didn't.

If old things had the ability to be embodied with some essence, I can't help but think this would be a great example of this.

I think it needs to be verified. Fascinating if true.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeoacoustics

Jun. 02 2014 04:53 PM
Aaron Murphy from Berkeley, CA

What makes the Thing a Thing rather than the copy/facsimile was really illuminated by the Swamp Man.

Things are things if they have experienced Time.

All electronic information - The email from Neil Armstrong is outside of time. A letter is within time. And therefore, like the sugar egg or the seed pot - can be destroyed.

Maybe for a Thing to be a Thing - it has to be 4 dimensional.

Jun. 02 2014 04:49 PM
Bob Smith from South Carolina

You know, it's funny -- my wife and I were having a discussion about this just the other day, about how I get very attached to "things" and she for the most part doesn't. Even when we're cleaning out my daughter's room, putting toys in the attic or donating them or whatever. I'm always the one who wants to keep something because of its sentimental value while my wife is more than happy to get rid of it if it hasn't been touched or even "missed" for a long time.

I'm curious about something with the sugar egg. I thought at the end of the Egg/Box/Tree story, that Rick was coming to terms with his egg being shattered by having eight-year-old "Max" help him rebuild it. If you had to go and destroy something like this, I thought that was a touching way to end it. So I was surprised when instead of leaving it like that, you said you were going to have some special effects guy glue it back together instead? That didn't fit for me. Was that just something to ease the guilt or something?

And maybe it's just me, but as far as the seed jar story, part of me really wishes you would've just left it alone. Reality has a harsh way of crushing dreams. If you hadn't gone back, their last memory of that jar would've been together, finding this amazing artifact. They literally would've talked about it for years to come and probably could've come up with some fanciful stories of it still being there a thousand years from now, found by some other hikers or whatever in the far distant future, and it would've taken on a mythology all its own. Instead it's just, "Nature destroyed it. End of story."

Of course, as I said before, I'm the sentimental type, so take what I say with a grain of salt ... or sugar ...

Jun. 02 2014 04:27 PM
Giggles from Minneapolis, MN

Loved this episode.

I'm not sure why, but the very last two minutes of this show moved me a lot, especially the very last man, Justin who's life was a country song; the silence, the internal letting go of his old life and moving on, I found myself with this strange and strong feeling of hope that literally brought tears to my eyes. Thanks RadioLab!

Jun. 02 2014 04:22 PM

I really enjoy RadioLab, but man you guys are bumming me out. In two of the stories in this episode you started with a person or people with a really personal and interesting backstory about an object. You got the story down and then forced the issue and ruined the story for the folks personally involved.

The egg, man, accidents happen but I feel bad for that guy.

Then when you got to the seed pot....I was thinking come on RadioLab, leave well enough alone. For the record, if I was the keeper the seed pot story, I'd go back, I'd want to know. But still, sad. Meta's not so bad.

Jun. 02 2014 04:08 PM
Ted Michelini from PDX

As a scientist, the little science was semi interesting but the Hipster vision quest ending was disappointing to me. Perhaps you could check out Retraction Watch and refocus on scientific culture?

Jun. 01 2014 03:38 PM

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