Aug 19, 2010

The Wonder of Youth

At the age of thirteen, mathematician Steve Strogatz was astonished to find that pendulums and water fountains had a strange relationship that had previously been completely hidden from him.

And as a young boy, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks pored over the pages of the Handbook of Physics and Chemistry, fantasizing about the day that he, like the shy gas Xenon, would some day find a companion with whom to connect and share. And he feels a great gratitude to the "Siberian bigamist" who revealed what matches might be most likely.

Parabolas, a video by Will Hoffman and Derek Paul Boyle:

Read more:

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Steven Strogatz, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

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Speaker 1: You're listening to Radiolab from New York Public Radio.

Speaker 2: WNY-

Speaker 3: C.

Speaker 1: And NPR.

Jad: For Steve Strogatz, a mathematician who we sometimes have on the show, it all started with a pendulum. You were sitting in math class.

Steve: Our teacher handed us a little toy pendulum.

Jad: Basically just a little device with a ball on the end of the string.

Steve: That was retractable. That is you could-

Jad: -change the length of the string.

Steve: Like an old telescope, that the pirate stretches out a spyglass. Click, click, click, you could make it longer in discrete clicks. Then the teacher gave us a stopwatch and said, "I want you to time how long it takes for this pendulum to swing back and forth 10 times." I do the experiment, 10 swings, I record how many seconds it took. Then he says, "Now make the pendulum a little bit longer. One click longer." Click, do it again.

Jad: As you might expect, since now the string is longer, takes a bit more time-

Steve: -to make the 10 swings. I write down the number, click, do it again. Click, do it again. I do this five or six times, dutifully plotting the results on graph paper, which is what the experiment was really supposed to teach us, how to use graph paper.

Jad: He's clicking, measuring, making a little dot.

Steve: Click.

Jad: Measure, dot.

Steve: Click.

Jad: Measure, dot. Soon the thing is filled with dots and that is when he noticed something.

Steve: This spooky thing was happening, which is that the dots were falling on an arc, on a curve. They weren't on a straight line. They fell on a particular curve and I noticed that this curve was a curve I had seen before because I had just learned about it in algebra class. It's called a parabola. This really gave me the creeps. I had this feeling of the hairs on the back of my neck standing up because it was as if this inanimate thing, this pendulum, knew algebra. My 13-year-old mind couldn't understand that. How could this thing swinging back and forth know something about parabolas or how could that be built in?

Jad: Then, an even creepier thought occurred to him. "Wait a second, this parabola on my paper, which is the same one as the math book, is also out in the world."

Steve: It's the shape that water makes coming out of a water fountain.

Jad: It's also the shape of when you shoot a rocket into the sky and it slowly descends, it's that.

Steve: It was in that moment that I suddenly understood what people mean when they say there is a law of nature.

Robert: Do you remember what it was that made your hair stand on end? Was it that you had peeked in and discovered a secret, or that you just simply found the right answer?

[00:03:33] Steve: Much closer to the first thing you said, that there was this veil over reality. A hidden universe that you couldn't see unless you knew math. It really felt like being led into some sort of secret society. That wasn't so much the point, it's not like I cared about being in this priesthood. It's a very intimate, personal thing, this feeling of wonder of a sense of living in an incomprehensible and beautiful universe. Partly comprehensible, that's the beauty of it. If you're a lobster, you don't have this thought. A lobster doesn't get to think about the laws of nature.

I've often thought to myself that it's a blessing that we live in a certain window of intelligence that if we were infinitely smart, godlike, we'd have such powerful brains, we could see every implication of everything. Math wouldn't be fun for a being that's too smart. Of course, for the lobster that's not smart enough, math is no fun for them either. It's in this intermediate window, where math and science become something to rejoice in.

Jad: Today's program is about a kind of search. A search for order, for patterns, hidden truths, and it's about the scientists who go out looking for those things and sometimes find them.

Speaker 4: Wow, what's that?

Robert: And sometimes don't.

Speaker 5: I felt humiliated, I felt stupid.

Jad: Question is, what makes these people tick? We're calling this show-

Robert: Why do I love the fly that's eating my brain?

Jad: That will make sense later. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab. You ready?

Robert: Yes.

Jad: Off we go.

Oliver: I think there's always been a desire to somehow categorize and classify the world around us.

Robert: Remember, in when you were in, I don't know when it'd be. Eighth grade, when the teacher comes in in general science and he pulls down the periodic table of elements? Remember that?

Jad: Yes, sure. That was one of the first times where I was like, "I don't want to be a scientist, it's not for me."

Robert: [laughs] For kids who love this kind of thing, take Oliver Sachs for example.

Oliver: You should come in.

Jad: I should come in? A couple of years ago we had went to talk to Oliver Sachs about something. Well it was actually mostly you that was going to talk to him and I was just tagging along for the hell of it. For some reason, we ended up in his bathroom.

Oliver: I tend to read a little bit on the toilet.

Jad: Maybe to look at a book or something. He seems to have facts and figures in this as well. There's a lot of us in there. I'm sorry. That's when we noticed.

Robert: You've got the periodic chart in bathroom.

Oliver: In every bathroom.

Robert: He had a periodic table of the elements on the wall in the bathroom.

Jad: We thought, "Wow, how funny. Periodic table in the bathroom." Then he said, "Well, if you go onto the couch you will see some cushions embroidered with the periodic table." Then he took us to his bedroom.

Oliver: Although I don't usually take people into my bedroom.

Robert: Oh we'll come.

Jad: Where he showed us his periodic table comforter.

Oliver: I tend to sleep here, right under tungsten.

Jad: The cool part was when he took us to the living room where he had this-

Robert: Describe what is before us here. It looks like an altar.

Jad: It's like a little dictionary stand on top of which was a beautiful Mahogany box.

Oliver: A fine wooden box.

Jad: About the size of a backgammon set.

Oliver: Called periodic table of the elements.

Robert: It is a very fine wooden box.

Oliver: If you care to open it.

Robert: It's made of some fine wood.

Oliver: It comes from Russia.

Robert: Is there a trick to opening it? We've all seen the periodic table we know on a chart but all over his box, there were the actual elements. These are all these. You have here 90 some-odd little tubes.

Oliver: Little samples.

Jad: Little tiny vials.

Olive: With almost all the elements. Silver, arsenic, bismuth, oxygen, got hydrogen, phosphorus, iron, manganese, mercury, nitrogen, labdanum, gold. Since I am, for example, having my 72nd birthday tomorrow and element 72 is Hafnium there's a little Hafnium. Two little rocks. Here's what they sound like if you scrabble them. I have coming to me, I hope it arrives today, an ingot of Hafnium which will be very much more satisfying.

Robert: What would you do with an ingot that you can't do with the two little pebbles?

Oliver: I would be able to hold it in my hand. My first love of chemistry had to do with the essentials. Here one of the liquid elements, bromine.I love the colors, the brown.

Robert: Faintly brown fluidy thing.

Oliver: The luster, pale gold and mercury. Very, very beautiful. The physical properties.

Robert: This is the gas trapped in little vile?

Oliver: Yes, one wouldn't want to drop that.

Robert: Why not?

Oliver: Well it's not good to breathe.

Jad: Can I just jump in here for a second because I really need to jump in? The thing it's really crazy about that box, and this you don't get from looking at a periodic chart on the wall, is that all those elements-

Oliver: Lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, Nitrogen, oxygen-

Jad: -that's like the world. Everything we can see and perceive. This table right here, the teeth in my mouth, the sky, the ocean, and the mountains, it's all made of some combination of elements from that box. The box itself gives it all a deep, deep order.

Oliver: I had noticed myself, one can't help noticing that the elements are organized in a very special way. For example-

Robert: Excuse me for a moment. I have managed to not notice. I find it a little odd that you could organize them at all. I don't even know how to begin the process of figuring out they're related in some way.

Oliver: Well then you are recapitulating what everyone felt in the early days.

Jad: Of course in the really early days, people thought there were just four elements.

Oliver: The ancient notion of elements took the form of earth, air, fire, and water. Basically, the thought that the whole world could be composed of these four ingredients in different ways.

Jad: Then in the 18th century, we're skipping ahead a bit, chemists began to break things down into smaller pieces. Wind became-

Oliver: Gasses like oxygen and hydrogen and nitrogen.

Jad: Earth got divided up into things like-

Oliver: Sulphur, phosphorus, iron.

Robert: By the way, in order to do this investigating do you have to boil and pull and tug and fry, steam, and do things like that?

Oliver: All of the above.

Jad: To fast forward, after enough of this boiling and tugging and frying and steaming, chemists got all the way down to the root of it, which was the atom. That's really what an element is. It's a particular kind of atom. The problem was though, when chemists began to start measuring these atoms, they found that they were all different sizes and types. One would be heavy another would be light, third one would be really friendly, likes to link up with other atoms, whereas the fourth could be a loner. They would come in combinations like heavy-friendly, heavy-shy, light-friendly, light-shy. What was the pattern? That was the question. How did they fit all of these differences and similarities into one big atom.

Oliver: Since we mentioned his name, let me here show you a picture of-

Jad: Here's where we get to Oliver's hero.

Oliver: -the Siberian bigamist, as he was called.

Jad: That would be Dimitri Mendeleev.

Oliver: The great Mendeleev, whom we will talk about.

Robert: Oliver has a black and white picture of him on his kitchen cabinets. This man is not going to win any beauty contest.

Oliver: No, he looks like a mixture between a Rasputin and, who do I mean?

Robert: Well, you mean he has a big nose, a shaggy slightly unkempt white beard, a mustache that goes all over the place. Piercing eyes, thick eyebrows, and looks like he's in a hunchback position. Generally, if you met him on the sidewalk, you'd probably want to walk around him.

Oliver: Yes, he didn't believe in wasting time going to a barber.

Robert: Let me just ask you, the degree of your passion. When you look at this man, do you think he's a beautiful looking guy or do you see what I see?

Oliver: I think Mendeleev had a beautiful mind. Around 1860, there were trains going all over Russia and Mendeleev could afford to take trains. He was often on enormous journeys and to while away the time, since he couldn't do chemical experiments or whatever, he would take playing cards with the name of various elements, their chemical and physical properties, and he would play what he called chemical solitaire.

Robert: Sorting them for likeness?

Oliver: I'm afraid I don't know the details.

Jad: You know what, we can imagine, right?

Oliver: Sure.

Jad: Tell us, just say, he's sitting there on the train. He's looking at the window of your place, sees trees made of carbon. A Lake, made of hydrogen and oxygen. Behind that, a mountain made of silica and he's shuffling-

Oliver: -the properties and their atomic weights in his mind.

Jad: Wondering.

Oliver: "How do these things go to chemicals?"

Jad: "What's the patterns?" He's shuffling.

Oliver: I'm shuffling

Jad: Shuffling.

Oliver: Shuffling.

Jad: Shuffling. He did this for years until one night, this we think is true.

Oliver: In February of 1869, he has said to have had a dream.

Jad: In his dream all the atoms of all the elements of all the world, the fat ones, the smaller ones, the dense ones, the heavy ones, the friendly ones, the shy ones, they all begin to dance in his mind and then they snapped into a grid.

Oliver: He awoke with a vision of the periodic table.

Robert: This is one of those, "Ahhh," dreams.

Oliver: Which he then wrote on the back of an envelope.

Jad: The thing about what he wrote on the back of that envelope is that it starts out so simply. Left to right, the atoms just get heavier and heavier and heavier and heavier, but every so often, and this is what he intuited in his dream, is that while they're getting heavier, their other traits like whether they're shy or magnetic or whatever, those traits repeat.

Oliver: Periodically change back again.

Jad Every time they do he'd start a new row.

Oliver: The properties, repeat again.

Jad: Out of this simple repeating structure, hush Mendeleev, you get a table that you can read in a million ways. There are so many ways to read this table.

Oliver: "I think I'm going to call this the periodic table."

Jad: If you use your imagination, you can see yourself in there.

Oliver: I was a rather shy kid with difficulty forming relationships and I sometimes compared myself to the inert gases.

Robert: Inert gasses are very isolated. They react with nothing.

Oliver: I felt that they, too, had difficulties forming relationships but I did--

Robert: He has now left the chair and has moved to the library and is taking in a hugely thick, actually a dangerously thick book.

Oliver: This is the handbook of physics and chemistry. As you'll see, it is 5,000 pages. I had a smaller version as a boy and from brooding in this book it seemed to me just possible that one of the inert gases, xenon, might be seduced into combination by the most active element of all, which was fluorine.

Robert: This lonely, lonely gas might find a partner somehow?

Oliver: Yes.

Robert: Did they ever get together?

Oliver: In fact, it came to me with great joy when I found out in the 1960s that actually a Canadian chemist had, in fact, made a fluoride of xenon.

Robert: Elemental love. Speaking of love, he then took us-

Oliver: I think let's come here, one sec.

Robert: -to the living room, and he showed us a small painting. In the painting, there was this dramatic figure of a bearded, scowling character on the side of a mountain holding two stone tablets over his head, and the sky was filled with lightning. Who was it?

Oliver: It was Dimitri

Robert: Mendeleev.

Oliver: When I heard of how Mendeleev had discovered the periodic table, I imagined Mendeleev as a sort of Moses. Going up to a chemical Sinai and coming down with the tablets of the periodic law. When I mention this fantasy to Peter Selkin, my friend, an artist, he did this imaginative picture of the young Mendeleev, the peaks of the chemical Sinai behind him, holding aloft the tablets of the periodic table.


Robert: Which raises maybe the deepest question of all. Did Mendeleev think this up and impose it upon the world, or was this pattern always there? In which case, Mendeleev just removed the veil and said, "Oh, there you are."

Oliver: Is the periodic table a discovery or an invention? Is it a human construct, or is it a revelation of the cosmic or divine order? Is it, so to speak, God's abacus?


Jad: Radiolab will continue in a moment.

Speaker 1: Message one.

Speaker 2: Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Science Foundation. Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by National Public Radio.

Speakers: [singing] Hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Beryllium. Boron. Carbon. Nitrogen. Oxygen. Chlorine. Neon. Sodium. Magnesium. Aluminum. Silicon. Phosphorus. Sulfur. Chlorine. Argon. Potassium. Mendeleev, Mendeleev, most [unintelligible 00:18:11]. Mendeleev, Mendeleev, most [unintelligible 00:18:15] . M-E-N-D-E-L-E-E-V.


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