Jan 25, 2011

Bird's-Eye View

Tim Howard heads to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey for the story of a WWII hero whose feats of navigation saved hundreds of lives. The hero? A pigeon named G.I. Joe. Museum Curator Mindy Rosewitz fills in the details. Professor Charles Walcott  helps Tim delve into the mysteries of how pigeons pull off these seemingly impossible journeys--flying home across hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. Then, Dr. Lera Boroditsky tells us about a language in Australia in which a pigeon-like ability to orient yourself is so crucial...you can't even say hello without knowing exactly which direction you're facing. And finally, Jad and Robert talk to Karen Jacobsen, aka "the GPS girl," about her own navigational abilities.

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Jad Abumrad: Hello, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab. Today our program is--

Robert: Lost and Found.

Karen: Approaching zone without GPS.

Tim Howard: All right. I think we're getting real close and [unintelligible 00:00:15]

Robert: And here driving into our next adventure, is our producer, Tim Howard.

Tim: Let's see if this is it.

Jad: So [unintelligible 00:00:21] and I took a trip-

?Speaker 4: I need your picture ID.

Jad: -to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

Robert: Fort what?

Jad: Fort Monmouth.

Robert: Is that a military base?

Tim: Yes. We were going to this museum they have on the base-

?Speaker 5: Are you Tim Howard?

Mindy Rosewitz: Hi, nice to meet you.

Tim: -to meet this woman, Mindy.

Mindy: Mindy Rosewitz, I'm the museum curator at US Army Communications.

Tim: She agreed to show us around.

Jad: To see what?

Tim: Patience, Jad.

Mindy: Do you want to hear some stories?

Tim: Absolutely.

Mindy: Here on display we have the war heroes.

Tim: So she pointed to this one glass case, sort of like a memorial.

Mindy: He was born in 1918, died here at Fort Monmouth in 1937, so he lived about 20 years. Served with the Army Expeditionary Forces. He was wounded and blinded in one eye, carrying a very important message.

Tim: What's all this on his face there?

Jad: Looks like putty.

Mindy: [laughs] What's all this stuff on his nose? It's called crop and it's a natural growth. I think it's a calcium growth and some pigeons just get that.

Jad: Did she just say pigeons?

Tim: You got it.

Mindy: A lot of them get it. Here's another one, Marker. I don't know.

Tim: This is a beautiful pigeon here.

Mindy: Yes, but he has one eye.

Tim: Oh, wow.

Mindy: His eye was shot out in the war.

Jad: Wait a second, Tim.

Tim: Yes?

Jad: What's the story? Why pigeons?

Tim: Why pigeons?

Jad: Yes.

Tim: A, pigeons are awesome, and B, there's a big question here.

Jad: Which is?

Tim: Let me just start you off training wheels, with a simple little story-

Mindy: This is GI Joe, he's our hero pigeon.

Tim: -about this one pigeon named GI Joe.

Mindy: GI Joe is pretty cool.

Tim: He looks like a totally ordinary pigeon. I wouldn't know that I'm standing a foot away from a war hero.

Mindy: I think he's cute. He's got yellow legs. Remember, I told you about the legs, the feet?

Tim: Yes.

Jad: All right, so what's the story?

Mindy: Okay.

Tim: It's 1943.

Mindy: There was a town.

Tim: The British have just taken this little Italian town-

Mindy: Collevecchio.

Tim: -Collevecchio from the Germans.

Mindy: The bad guys.

Tim: The problem is they took it really fast and their American allies are about to-

Mindy: -bomb the town-

Tim: -in 20 minutes. Their radios are down. They can't get anybody back to the base in time to tell them to call it off.

Jad: How nearby is this base?

Tim: 20 miles away. So they only really have one option.

Jad: Let me guess.

Tim: No, wait. Just so you really get this-

Ja: Yes, bring it home.

Tim: -this bird is in a place that he's never been before. Whole way there, for hours, he's been in a dark box. He should be completely confused.

Jad: Should be.

Tim: Yet when they take him out and throw him in the air.

[music]

Tim: Like a cosmic zip-cord, he's pulled over mountains, lakes, forests, none of which he's ever seen before, right back to the army base where he lives-

Mindy: -just in the nick of time-

Tim: -just as the bombers are about to take off.

Mindy: He's credited with saving over a thousand British lives.

Newsreel Voice: American-hatched GI Joe carried the message through an artillery bombardment in Italy and saved units of the 56th London Division.

Tim: How the hell did he do that? How did he know exactly where to go?

Mindy: Some of them returned with the message capsule hanging from their leg and their breastbone shot open and all that kind of stuff, but they would always fly back home.

Tim: How?

Jad: That's your question?

Tim: Yes.

[phone ringing]

Tim: Hello?

Charlie: Hello there.

Tim: So I called this guy.

Charlie Wocott: This is Charlie Wolcott.

Tim: He's a heavy hitter in the pigeon world.

Charlie: Former director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Tim: My question is if GI Joe had never been to that town, how did he know how to get back home?

Charlie: The first thing that GI Joe needs to know is where-

Jad: Wait, Tim, I'm sorry. I feel bad for saying this because it's your first piece for the show, but don't we know the answer to this?

Tim: What's the answer, Jad?

Jad: Birds have a compass in their head. That's how they migrate.

Tim: Jad, you dummy.

Jad: You're just not getting the degree of difficulty.

Charlie: Think about it this way. If I take you in a little boat and put you out in the middle of a large body of water, all you can see is water in every direction. Which way do you paddle to find New York City?

Jad: Are you asking me?

Tim: Yes.

Jad: Can I have a compass in this scenario?

Charlie: Sure.

Tim: But that's not going to help you.

Jad: Sure it will.

Charlie: No.

Jad: What do you mean, no?

Tim: Just think about it. Which way are you going to paddle first?

Jad: I don't know enough to say.

Charlie: Exactly. It depends a little bit on whether I've dumped you in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, or whatever.

Tim: You can't swim home if you don't know which direction home is.

Jad: And you're saying this is what a pigeon does? You can throw it anywhere and it knows its way back.

Tim: That's my whole point. If you were a pigeon, I wouldn't need to tell you anything.

Charlie: How did GI Joe figure out where he is with relation to home? That's the great question.

Jad: Okay, I’m with you now and I’m sorry for interrupting you earlier.

Tim: That's all right. How do they do it? If you have a one sentence answer for it, then that's a short interview.

Charlie: It's a very easy answer. We don't know.

Tim: They have been doing a lot of crazy experiments on pigeons over the years, like 60 years now to try and figure all this out.

Charlie: [laughs] Let us count the ways. We have tried flying pigeons with frosted contact lenses.

Jad: Really?

Tim: They've put coils on their heads.

Charlie: Top of the pigeon's head like a hat.

Tim: They've glued-

Charlie: -little brass weights-

Tim: -to their backs. They put radio transmitters on them.

Charlie: Yes, indeed.

Tim: They've followed pigeons in airplanes.

Charlie: The point is that it's a complex issue.

Tim: They have definitely not arrived at any consensus for how pigeons do this.

Jad: They have theories?

Tim: Plenty of theories.

Charlie: Oh yes.

Tim: For example.

Charlie: The Italians Floriano Papi and his colleagues believed that when you take the pigeons out to the release point, they sample the odors on the way to the release point.

Tim: All the smells of the places that they pass?

Charlie: Right. Essentially a series of olfactory landmarks. You go past the chocolate factory and the olive groves or the garlic plantation or whatever.

Tim: Sounds like a beautiful place.

[laughter]

Charlie: When a pigeon is released, what it does is it sniffs the breeze and says, "Yes."

Karen: Continue past garlic, take a left at chocolate.

Charlie: This is the odor that came to me on the north wind and therefore I need to fly south in order to get home.

Tim: Charlie’s actually put this idea to the test.

Charlie: We anesthetized the pigeons, put them in a box, artificial air-

Tim: So they can't smell anything.

Charlie: -in a rotating turntable and transported them to a release site about 100 miles away. When they got over being kind of carsick, they flew home just fine.

Jad: Something else is going on here.

Tim: Here's where we get to my personal favorite theory.

Jad: Right.

Tim: Forget about smell. There are some researchers here in the US who think that the key to pigeon navigation-

Jad: Is?

Tim: Are you ready for this?

Jad: Yes. What is it?

Tim: Metal. Which is to say, if you go all the way down into the center of the earth, there's all this iron down there, churning. As it's churning, it's throwing off this magnetism-

Charlie: Yes. Lines of magnetic force.

Tim: -up through the earth out into space. Imagine up there in the atmosphere above the planet, there are all these lines that are wiggling and as GI Joe is flying through the air, he's moving through these lines.

Jad: Oh. Do you think he sees the lines?

Tim: I can tell you that he might feel them because there are these little particles in his beak.

Charlie: Magnetic iron particles.

Tim: They're twitching. In some spots they twitch more, in some spots less.

Charlie: If you can measure various aspects of the magnetic field like its strength and its angle, you can tell whereabouts you are.

Tim: Do you think that's what's actually happening?

Charlie: I think it may be partly what's happening.

Tim: Charlie says there's probably a lot of things going down and any time you think you figured it out, the pigeon goes and messes you up. For example he told me about this one place-

Charlie: There is a place-

Tim: -in New York.

Charlie: -about 90 miles west of here called Jersey Hill Fire Tower. If we take Cornell pigeons to Jersey hill and let them go, they go random and only about 10% of them ever find their way home and so they are essentially lost. It is a Bermuda triangle for Cornell pigeons.

Tim: Why would that be?

Jad: That [unintelligible 00:08:52]

Charlie: If we knew I would tell you.

Tim: Is it a magnetic thing?

Charlie: No, no. There's nothing magnetically disturbed about it.

Jad: Is it a sewage treatment capital?

Charlie: [laughs] No.

Tim: Hyperactive radio frequencies?

Charlie: No, it's a hill surrounded by pine trees. It's just a hill.

Tim: Does it make you wonder if there's a whole other system going on in a pigeon that we haven't even started to think about?

Charlie: Yes, of course. Then you say, "What could it possibly be?" After a long day of being out there with the pigeons and releasing them and waiting for them to make up their mind and fly home and get the vanishing bearings, you come back and you open the loft and there they are, all sitting on their little perches going, "Coo, coo." You just long to grab one by the scruff of the neck and say, "How do you do it?" So far, obviously, they haven't told us.

Tim: One more thing.

Mindy: I didn't tell you about how they were monogamous.

[music]

Tim: The pigeon mind might be unknowable but the pigeon heart is an open book. Mindy said that with a lot of other birds-

Mindy: Roosters and chickens.

Tim: -if you get them all together-

Mindy: -they all go wild and party.

Tim: One thing leads to another.

Mindy: They all party. [crosstalk] Maybe they go in the jacuzzi, yes. I don't know what they do in the jacuzzi.

Tim: I'm not judging, but pigeons--

Mindy: They would mate and they would stay mated until death do they part.

Tim: One thing you can do to make the pigeon fly home faster is you take the male out of its cage, you put another male in there with his girl, and of course, he's going to get pissed off.

Mindy: His feathers are fluffing and who is this stray male in my cage and all this kind of stuff.

Tim: Drive him away-

Mindy: -and he flies back so fast to clean house.

Charlie: This is called the widowhood method, and yes, it is a powerful motivator.

Mind: They miss the missus.

Tim: Wow. Who knows how he did it, but what may have propelled GI Joe through those dark and war torn skies was jealous rage.

Charlie: It could have been.

Tim: You go, GI Joe, you go get that young buck.

Jad: You go, GI Joe, and if you have to save 1000 lives in the meantime, okay, just do it.

[music]

Robert: Pretty good, pretty good, those pigeons. I think we can go one more round for the human being and our natural ability to navigate. I met a woman named Lera Boroditsky. She's in the psychology department at Stanford University. She studies languages, and she's found that some languages have a curiously-- I don't how to put this, a curiously pigeon-like power.

Robert: No, seriously.

Lera Boroditsky: There are languages that don't rely heavily on words like left and right, and some languages actually don't have those words at all. In the culture I got to spend some time in, they rely on North, South, East, West.

Jad: You mean like instead of taking a left at the Biscuit Factory, I'm going to hang in the East?

Lera: More so than that. You would say things like, "There is an ant on your south-west leg," or "Move your cup to the north-north-west a little bit."

Jad: Where are we talking of, by the way?

Robert: Yes, you should back up. This story is too good. You should start at the beginning.

Nassif: Yes, where are we in the world right now?

Lera: This is a community called Pormpuraaw on Cape York, in Australia.

Robert: Pormpuraaw.

Jad: When was this?

Lera: This was a few years ago. I guess 2006. There, the way you say hello in Pormpuraaw is you say, "Which way are you going?" In English, you say, "How are you?" "Fine." In Pormpuraaw you say, "Which way are you going?" The answer must be something like, "North-north-east in the middle distance. How about you?"

Robert: What?

Lera: Imagine as you're walking around your studio, each person that says hi to you, you have to report your heading direction to them, so you literally can't get past hello in this language without knowing which way you're facing.

Robert: You said, "North-north-west in the middle direction." Is it really that precise?

Lulu: It's actually more precise than that. There are eighty-some different choices.

Jad: Whoa.

Robert: Whoa.

Lera: Yes. It was socially very awkward. People thought I was quite dim because I wasn't oriented, and I didn't know exactly which way was which all the time. It was especially notable when I was surrounded by small children, who, unlike me, knew which direction they were facing.

Robert: Always?

Lera: Yes. You can ask a five-year-old there, "Can you point North-East?" and they'll point without hesitation. If you ask a Stanford professor or a Harvard professor to do the same thing, they have no idea.

[crosstalk]

Robert: What if you were indoors? What if you were in a shelter? Could they still do it?

Lulu: Yes, they keep track of directions even when they're indoors-

Robert: How?

Lera: -and without windows. You pay attention. You just have to pay attention. I think what's really striking about the discovery of languages like these and folks like these is they have an ability that we call dead reckoning. It's an ability, after any kind of circuitous path, to turn around and head straight back home. That ability we thought was beyond human capacity. We had observed it in ants, and we had observed it in birds, but there was always some other explanation like birds have magnets in their beaks, and ants are counting steps. There's some kind of extra thing that they were doing. Now, there's 7,000 languages in the world. About a third of the languages have this property.

Jad: Whoa.

Lera: Not a third of the world's speakers, but a third of the world's languages.

Robert: Wow.

Lera: These are not folks that have magnets or special ant superpowers. They're using the same cognitive system that we're using. They're just using it differently. They're paying attention to something that we normally don't pay attention to.

Robert: Interestingly, Lera says, there was a moment, a very particular moment when she slipped into attention.

Lera: Yes. I had this interesting experience when I was there. After about a week of being there, people were constantly pointing to locations and I was constantly trying to stay oriented. After about a week I was walking along. I was trudging through the sand. It was hot and I was thinking about whether I was wasting my time there or not. I wasn't sure if the study was going to work out. All of a sudden I noticed that in my head there was this extra little, it seemed almost like an extra window, like in a video game. There was a little console, and in that console was a bird's eye view of the landscape that I was walking on and I was a little red dot that was traversing that landscape.

Jad: No kidding.

Robert: And you just become a pillow palau or whatever they're called.

Lera: [chuckles] And I thought wow, that's really cool. That makes it so much easier if you have that little extra module.

Robert: And all of a sudden is the correct word? That happened all of a sudden? It popped in?

Lera: Yes. I just saw it. It was just there and then I shyly shared this with someone. I said, "You know, this weird thing happened. I was walking along and I had this view in my mind." They looked at me kind of strangely and said, "Well, of course, how else would you do it?" That's exactly-- [chuckles] of course you have a bird's eye view and you keep track of your location from a bird's eye view.

Robert: Of course you do. I have that all the time.

Jad: No, you don't.

Robert: No, I don't.

Jad: I don't either. [chuckles]

Karen: Proceed to break.

Jad: By the way, that voice right there that's been joining us from time to time, we should explain that is Karen Jacobsen.

Karen: Also known as the GPS Girl.

Jad: She was nice enough to agree to read some things that we could use in our story, so that's what you've been hearing.

Karen: Okay, shall we start with the scripts that I have in front of me?

Robert: Yes, let's do that. Okay.

Karen: : Please enter your address.

Robert: Wow.

Jad: That's amazing. It sounds like you've gone into the machine somehow. Are you someone that gets lost a lot?

Karen: I have a great sense of direction. Years before I did the voice of GPS, I was on vacation with my family in Denmark. We were in this little town. It was winter, it was getting dark. It was raining and then the street signs were in Danish and we didn't speak Danish. I am still heralded as the family member who navigated us out of that situation [chuckles] because it was like round and round in circles in this little town. Whoever would have imagined [laughs] I would end up being the person giving people directions in millions of cars all over the world?

[chuckles]

Jad: Can you go into character again?

Karen: Okay. Proceed north-northwest in the middle distance. How about you?

Jad and Robert: Wow.

Lera: Ought to work out how to bubble that.

Karen: Oh, I did.

[laughter]

[music]

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[beep]

 

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