Dec 20, 2017

Big Little Questions

Here at the show, we get a lot of questions. Like, A LOT of questions. Tiny questions, big questions, short questions, long questions. Weird questions. Poop questions. We get them all.

And over the years, as more and more of these questions arrived in our inbox, what happened was, guiltily, we put them off to the side, in a bucket of sorts, where they just sat around, unanswered. But now, we’re dumping the bucket out.

Today, our producers pick up a few of the questions that spilled out of that bucket, and venture out into the great unknown to find answers to some of life's greatest mysteries: coincidences; miracles; life; death; fate; will; and, of course, poop.

This episode was reported and produced by Rachael Cusick, Tracie Hunte and Matt Kielty. 

Special thanks to Blake Nguyen, Sarah Murphy and the New York Public Library. 

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.

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Robert:

Uh, wait, you're listening...

 

Tracie:

Okay.

 

Jad:

All right.

 

Tracie:

Okay.

 

Jad:

All right

 

Tracie:

Your listening...

 

Jad:

Listening...

 

Tracie:

To Radio Lab, lab, lab...

 

Robert:

Radio Lab...

 

Tracie:

From, nu, nu, nu, nu...

 

Jad:

WNYC

 

Tracie:

C, C, C... C?

 

Jad:

Yes.

 

Robert:

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Jad:

Robert Krulwich.

 

Robert:

This is RadioLab.

 

Jad:

And today...

 

Robert:

We're going to hit the phones.

 

Martin:

Hello.

 

Robert:

Hi, can I speak to Mark?

 

Jad:

Starting with this guy, Mark Morrison.

 

Mark M.:

This is me.

 

Robert:

Hey Mark, this is Jad calling from RadioLab.

 

Mark M.:

Hey Jad, good to hear ya.

 

Jad:

(laughing)

 

Robert:

Got a hold of him of him at his home in Olympia, Washington.

 

Mark M.:

I'm hanging out on the front porch. The kids ar running around, so you might hear some traffic.

 

Jad:

Okay, gotcha.

 

Robert:

Um, all right, maybe we should just jump in, and you should just tell me the story.

 

Mark M.:

Okay, so I was DJ-ing a wedding out in Lacy, which is the next town over. It was the the hot, like, late spring, kind of, feeling like summer kinda day. And we were in a little a rented facility that had like windows on all sides, and then all of the sudden the power starts flickering, and it starts raining really hard.

 

Robert:

Okay.

 

Mark M.:

Then trees are falling over. The wind is gusting, and it... the sky turns to night.

 

Robert:

Whoa.

 

Mark M.:

And this is like 3:30 in the afternoon.

 

Jad:

So Mark takes off, goes back home.

 

Mark M.:

My in-laws are visiting in town to hang out with the new baby, and we open up the curtains, turned off all the lights, and we're just kind of marveling at the insane power of this storm that's happening. My wife is sitting on the couch. My 2-year-old is watching Charlie Brown or something on the Ipad, and then all of the sudden, there's just a loud snap, like the sound of a whip cracking or like a 2 x 4 being snapped in half, and about a foot and a half to two feet in front of my face, right next to my mother-in-law and the baby, there's a little sphere of light, white light, just a little orb, the size of like maybe an orange or a grapefruit, kind of blurry edges around it, floating in midair, as bright as like the sun, like the bright... it lit up the entire room.

 

Jad:

Oh...

 

Mark M.:

We all screamed. (laughs)

 

Robert:

(laughs)

 

Mark M.:

Everybody in the room [inaudible 00:02:32]

 

Jad:

And Mark says this sun orb just sort of hovered in front of his face.

 

Robert:

Kind of going, whom, whom, whom... for maybe a second.

 

Jad:

When all of the sudden, poof. It was gone.

 

Mark M.:

Yeah.

 

Robert:

That's some x-file (bleep) right there.

 

Mark M.:

Yeah, none of us had any idea what the heck happened.

 

Jad:

Well, did you go around the room, being like, "Did you guys see that? Did you see that?"

 

Mark M.:

Yeah. Everybody saw it. Everybody saw it. My mother-in-law thought that I had, like, taken some kind of, like, fireworks and thrown it up in the air. (laughs)

 

Jad:

(laughs)

 

Robert:

(laughs)

 

Mark M.:

She's like, "What did you do?" I'm like, "I didn't do anything". So, what I did was I started trying to Google it, and there's, you know... I mean, imagine trying to Google that. You're not gonna find anything. (laughs)

 

Jad:

Wha, what, what did type into Google?

 

Mark M.:

Sphere of light floating indoors. (laughs)

 

Jad:

(Laughs)

 

Robert:

(Laughs)

 

Mark M.:

I did, I didn't get very far. Yeah... (laughs)

 

Robert:

(Laughs)

 

Mark M.:

But, um, I just, I just wanted to get to the bottom of it.

 

Jad:

And so what Mark did, is he sat down on a computer, and he typed up this email, basically saying...

 

Mark M.:

Like, what the hell is this thing?

 

Jad:

And then he sent that email into the void.

 

Robert:

Which would be us. (laughs)

 

Jad:

Which would be us.

 

Robert:

We are the void. Yes. (laughs)

 

Jad:

To our email inbox, and, uh, you know, it sat around for a while, because we tend to get these kinds of questions...

 

Robert:

A lot.

 

Tracie:

Are there more stars in the universe or grains of sand on earth?

 

Robert:

A lot.

 

Jad:

A lot.

 

Tracie:

Is it clean beneath the sticker of the apple?

 

Robert:

Why do some birds walk and others hop?

 

Tracie:

How do fish hear?

 

Jad:

Why are horses special?

 

Robert:

We get things like...

 

Tracie:

What's up with traffic jams?

 

Jad:

Random questions like...

 

Robert:

Helium is a finite resource, why are we wasting it on balloons?

 

Jad:

A lot of poop questions.

 

Tracie:

Why is different animal's poop shaped differently?

 

Jad:

Yep, a lot of poop.

 

Tracie:

What happens when you flush a toilet on the equator?

 

Jad:

And they just sort of pile up. We sort of put them in this bucket.

 

Robert:

Yeah...

 

Jad:

And then feel guilty about not answering them, and over the years...

 

Robert:

Well, they keep coming, so the bucket gets fuller and fuller.

 

Jad:

And fuller.

 

Robert:

So finally, today, we decided, okay, lets just dump the bucket out. (music)

 

Jad:

And so we're going to try and answer some of these questions today, a bunch of us. (phone ringing)

 

Martin:

Hello...

 

Jad:

Beginning with the question about the orb. Can I speak to Martin, please.

 

Martin:

You're talking to him.

 

Jad:

Trying to answer Mark's question, I called up a guy named Martin Uman.

 

Martin:

Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Florida.

 

Jad:

Thank you. Is this still a good time to chat?

 

Martin:

Uh. It's about the only time, because I'm gonna go to dinner in about ten minutes.

 

Jad:

All right, excellent. Uh, so we'll just jump right in.

 

Martin:

All right. How long we gonna talk?

 

Jad:

Well, uh, uh, so I, ah, told Martin the story of thunderstorm, boom, glowing orb, poof, glowing orb gone.

 

Martin:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

So maybe I'll just put the most basic question to you. Like, what is that?

 

Martin:

Well, that observation is not uncommon, and it's called, generally called ball lightning.

 

Jad:

Ball lightning?

 

Martin:

Yeah. That's what it's called.

 

Jad:

And according to Martin ball lighting is timeless.

 

Martin:

[inaudible 00:05:36] and Greeks described exactly this same thing, and, and the, ah, 19th century and 18th century, they used commonly come down the chimney, come out the fireplace.

 

Jad:

Oh wow. But now, says Martin, we are living in an electronic world, and so these balls of lightning...

 

Martin:

Sometimes come out of a wall socket, sometimes out of a telephone.

 

Jad:

Huh.

 

Martin:

And they happen in airplanes. They happen in submarines.

 

Jad:

Whoa...

 

Martin:

They, they...

 

Jad:

That actually... that's been reported?

 

Martin:

Yeah. Lightning strikes outside an airplane, and a ball comes through the windshield and floats down the whole plane.

 

Jad:

What? If I'm in that plane, I'm thinking...

 

Martin:

You're gonna hope you have your diaper on, right?

 

Jad:

(Laughing)

 

Martin:

Wear your Depends.

 

Jad:

(Laughing)

 

Martin:

Any time you've got electrical stuff going on, you can make a ball of fire like that.

 

Jad:

So do we know anything about what causes... what it is exactly. Is it just another form of lightning that somehow manages to ball itself up and hang around?

 

Martin:

Well, probably.

 

Jad:

Martin is actually one of the few people who has studied ball lightning in the lab. He actually got funded by DARPA to try and figure out how it works, wasn't quite able to. He says what's likely happening is that when a bolt of lighting strikes, it might hit something.

 

Martin:

Soil, water, tree...

 

Jad:

Whatever it is, some substance...

 

Martin:

Gets lit up and somehow forms itself into a sphere, like a balloon or a bubble, or something.

 

Jad:

Like if you imagined lightning hits some dust, shocks the dust, changes its chemistry, so that it forms some kind of spherical scaffolding, and the lightning sticks to the scaffolding or something?

 

Martin:

Maybe that's what's happening, but you can't prove it. I mean, there's some theory, which indicates that, that might happen, but if you go into the laboratory and you try to make it, you can't make it, so you can't prove it. And if you get a book on ball lightning or you get my book and look at the chapter on ball lightning, you'll see, probably, a list of fifty different theories that people have come up with.

 

Jad:

Huh.

 

Martin:

Uh, from ah, all the way to black holes, and, and discontinuities in time-space, and things that are just, you know, completely, almost out of this world. So they remain a mystery, but a well-observed mystery.

 

Jad:

Hmm...

 

Martin:

Did you know that people don't have any good maps for how lightning gets started in a cloud?

 

Jad:

Really? I didn't know that.

 

Martin:

We, we don't know how what, how lightning can, can get started. It shouldn't be able to.

 

Jad:

It shouldn't... really? Be-ya... Based on what? The math says there's not enough...

 

Martin:

Based on all the measurements that have been made of the conditions in clouds.

 

Jad:

Huh? So you're saying...

 

Martin:

The world is full of things that aren't understood. Almost nothing is understood.

 

Jad:

(Laughs)

 

Martin:

We're floundering around.

 

Jad:

(Laughs) Does, do you find yourself thinking about ball lightning and then suddenly you just tip toeing into an existential crisis-

 

Martin:

(Laughs)

 

Jad:

... about how lil, how little we know of the world.

 

Martin:

Well, so how I make my living is trying to uncover little, little more bits by little more bits, but, yeah, there's lots that isn't known about everything.

 

Robert:

Next up, producer Tracie Hunte goes on a field trip to some very hallowed ground.

 

Tracie:

Man, I think I've finally reached the library.

 

announcer:

The New York Public Library-

 

Robert:

The New York Public Library.

 

announcer:

... within it's white marble walls is stored the sum of man's wisdom.

 

Robert:

Which, in its glory days.

 

Tracie:

Okay, so, right here in the grand hall is like beautiful chandeliers all over the place, these gorgeous columns.

 

Robert:

Is filled with-

 

announcer:

Seven floors of stacks-

 

Robert:

... millions of books.

 

announcer:

... in every field of human endeavor.

 

Robert:

Row, upon row, upon row of shelves.

 

announcer:

Eighty miles of shelves, close to fifty centuries of human thinking and experience.

 

Robert:

And every year, millions of visitors like Tracie would walk through these hallowed halls-

 

announcer:

Each has a question.

 

Robert:

... with questions fueled by curiosity, the desire for truth, for knowledge, for wisdom, people trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

 

Tracie:

I came here to ask them a question about catnip.

 

Mark M.:

Catnip? (laughing)

 

Tracie:

Yes, catnip.

 

Mark M.:

Wh-wh-why? Why catnip?

 

Tracie:

[inaudible 00:10:28] we actually got like 500 questions from our listeners, so I thought it might be a good idea to take some of them to the library.

 

Tracie:

Hi Rosa?

 

Tracie:

So I met up with woman.

 

Rosa:

It's nice to meet you.

 

Tracie:

I'm Tracie. Nice to meet you Rosa.

 

Tracie:

And she walked me into this office. There's about like, I don't know, twelve people sitting at their desks.

 

Tracie:

Why don't you just introduce yourself [crosstalk 00:10:50]

 

Rosa:

Okay, sure. So, my name is Rosa Lee. I manage Ask NYPL, and I've been in this department for about five years.

 

Robert:

Ask NY-what?

 

Tracie:

Ask NYPL. It's 917-ASK-NYPL. I'm putting the phone number out there. And if you call them, and you ask them a question, it's their job to answer it.

 

Rosa:

Yes, so we are like a call center, so our typical day starts with questions.

 

Tracie:

Like in your typical day, how many phone calls do you get?

 

Rosa:

Um, typical day about 150-200.

 

Tracie:

And Rosa was telling me that most of the questions they get are-

 

Rosa:

What will the weather be like this weekend?

 

Tracie:

... very boring.

 

Rosa:

Hey, my library card expired or I want to renew this book.

 

Tracie:

But, you know, also, they get some weird ones.

 

Rosa:

We take them all.

 

Tracie:

Yeah, um so I got a list right here, and in the past they've gotten things like, "What kind of apple did Eve eat?", "Is it proper to go alone to Reno to get a divorce?", "Any statistics on the life span of the abandoned woman?", "Do Camels have to be licensed in India?", "What is the natural enemy of the duct?", "Can I get a book telling me how to be mistress of ceremonies at a musical orgy?", "What does it mean when you dreamed you're being chased by an elephant?"

 

Robert:

And do they answer all those?

 

Tracie:

They'll try to.

 

Bernard:

So, you know, I was maybe a little dismissive for a few of them. I mean, all the questions, of course are very important. We welcome all questions, please.

 

Tracie:

This, by the way, is Bernard.

 

Bernard:

Bernard VanMarsavene...

 

Tracie:

He has been working for Ask NYPL since about 2001, and so the question... He did answer my catnip question, which is...

 

Bernard:

Do large feline species, like tigers and lions, have the same reaction to catnip as domestic cats? Yes.

 

Tracie:

Yes. All cats like catnip.

 

Bernard:

Apparently tigers, at least.

 

Tracie:

But, um, you know, I had all these questions, so I actually had them pick one that they thought was super interesting.

 

Bernard:

Yeah.

 

Tracie:

Which one did you pick to, to answer?

 

Bernard:

Let me get the exact wording on it.

 

Tracie:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Bernard:

So, yeah, so here we go. Could you play a meaningful game of Frisbee on the surface of Mars?

 

Tracie:

Yeah.

 

Bernard:

And-

 

Tracie:

Yeah, I really like that one.

 

Bernard:

Yeah, that was a good one.

 

Tracie:

(Laughs)

 

Bernard:

And I think the word that makes it, like, just really shine is-

 

Tracie:

Meaningful.

 

Bernard:

... meaningful.

 

Tracie:

So, um, the first thing he does-

 

Bernard:

You wanna get me kinda doing some, some searching, you know, [inaudible 00:12:56] kinda stuff here.

 

Tracie:

And he... I guess I was a little disappointed that we didn't bust out any, like, books.

 

Bernard:

I'm just looking up, uh, Frisbee aerodynamics.

 

Tracie:

He literally just turned to his computer and started Googling.

 

Bernard:

How does a Frisbee behave here on earth, the spin of the Frisbee, of course the lift, drag...

 

Tracie:

So, he looks all that stuff up.

 

Bernard:

Let's see.

 

Tracie:

Then he looked up, like, aerodynamics.

 

Bernard:

On Mars-

 

Tracie:

On Mars.

 

Bernard:

... it's very thin, the air there, so-

 

Tracie:

Because the air is so thin on Mars, you wouldn't get that spinning, lifting thing that you always get with Frisbees-

 

Bernard:

It might not have the same sort of hovering effect that a Frisbee does here on earth. It would be more like just throwing a ball.

 

Tracie:

It would just go-

 

Bernard:

Ten feet away, 15 feet away.

 

Jad:

I don't think that, that counts as a meaningful game of Frisbee.

 

Tracie:

But, you know, you can, can still throw it back and forth. (Laughing)

 

Robert:

But meaningful? (Laughing)

 

Tracie:

Well...

 

Jad:

To me, the question is, like, you're playing Frisbee on Mars. I mean, that's just inherently-

 

Tracie:

So, it's already, it's already meaningful.

 

Jad:

... meaningful.

 

Tracie:

Oh, oh okay.

 

Jad:

You know, growing up, I remember seeing, uh, rebroadcasts of, you know, like the astronauts on the moon.

 

Astronaut:

[inaudible 00:14:09] looking up. You might recognize what I have in my hand is the-

 

Jad:

Playing golf.

 

Astronaut:

...[inaudible 00:14:16] just so happen to have a [inaudible 00:14:19] six-iron on the bottom of [inaudible 00:14:25]

 

Jad:

And I'm sure that they were not playing, like, you know, PGA golf.

 

Astronaut:

[inaudible 00:14:38]

 

Jad:

They were just, you know, amateur golfers, but they were golfing on the moon.

 

Tracie:

(Laughs)

 

Astronaut:

[inaudible 00:14:48] one more. Miles, and miles, and miles.

 

Jad:

I mean, to me that's pretty great.

 

Tracie:

That's pretty, that's pretty impressive.

 

Jad:

So, th-th-the, the venue kind of makes the whole endeavor meaningful, I think, in it's, in it's way.

 

Robert:

Thanks to producer Tracie.

 

Tracie:

Uh, wait. I, I actually did ask them my dragons question.

 

Robert:

Oh, oh, well then next up Tracie Hunt and dragons.

 

Christina:

Hi, this is Christina.

 

Tracie:

Hi-

 

Christina:

Yeah.

 

Tracie:

... this is Tracie. Hi. This is Tracie.

 

Christina:

Oh, hey, hey. Oh, you called me back...

 

Tracie:

This question is from Christina Hardquist.

 

Christina:

I'm native of Navato.

 

Tracie:

Out in Northern California.

 

Christina:

Um, and I was born and raised here, so, yeah. Love this place.

 

Tracie:

And you... and what was your question to us, if you remember what it was, roughly?

 

Christina:

Yeah, so I came across this article about these creatures called olms, that I guess were being, you know, washed out of these caves in Eastern Europe.

 

Tracie:

What are they called?

 

Christina:

Olms, O-L-M. They're sort of like blind, cave-dwelling amphibians. They're total white. Their skin is translucent, very other-worldly. The article touched on the idea that, you know, folklore thought that these little creatures were actually like dragon babies being pushed out of, of these caves where, where these huge dragons lived, so I started digging into a little bit, and of course you can only find so much on the internet, but there was this idea of dragons being a, sort of like a universal myth across, you know, different, different cultures.

 

Tracie:

And Christina started to wonder why it seemed that so many cultures all over the world all had myths about dragons.

 

Christina:

What is about, like, humans that cause them to believe in these, like, huge, scary, fire-breathing animals?

 

Jad:

Is that true that cultures all over the world-

 

Robert:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

... have dragons?

 

Tracie:

Well sorta. You have Northern European dragon that we're all familiar with.

 

Robert:

Uh-huh.

 

Tracie:

Then there's the, uh, Chinese dragon, which is a little different. It doesn't have wings. It doesn't breath fire. Then there's, um, other dragon-looking, sorta, things. The Nanabolela among the Besotho people of Southern Africa. There's the Amaru associated with the Incan empire.

 

Adrienne:

Yeah, I think there's no doubt that we have fabulous, awesome creatures like dragons in almost every culture in the world...

 

Tracie:

So this is Adrienne Mayor.

 

Adrienne:

I'm a research scholar in the classics department at Stanford, and I'm int-, most interested in is what sorts of things found in nature might have led pre-scientific people to believe that dragons or monsters, or other fantastic creatures really existed, at least in the past or even maybe in the present...

 

Tracie:

Adrienne actually wrote a book called, The First Fossil Hunters, that lays out this theory that a lot of these stories were actually based on, uh, people finding old, you know, fossils and bones.

 

Adrienne:

Fossils, bones, or teeth, or claws, or footprints embedded in stone.

 

Robert:

So, they'd see, uh, uh, a set of old bones that they couldn't explain with any modern creatures, so the creature they go to is this dragon-shaped thing?

 

Tracie:

Yes, but...

 

Adrienne:

I do want to point out, though, that we can never know for certain which comes first, the observations of mysterious traces of unknown animals or the stories of dragons. We don't know which comes first.

 

Tracie:

She says it could be that the story about the dragon was already there and then when they found some bones, they just sort of applied those bones to the dragon myth.

 

Jad:

Well, if, if the dragon came before the bones, where did it come from?

 

Tracie:

Well, there's another theory.

 

Adrienne:

Some scholars have said they're like monsters of the Id. They arise from ancient memories of very real predators that were faced by our ancestors-

 

Tracie:

Basically dragons are composites of the-these creatures that used to eat us and hunt us, and kill us, like crocodiles-

 

Adrienne:

... saber tooth tigers and-

 

Tracie:

... lions-

 

Adrienne:

... cave bears, gigantic serpents-

 

Tracie:

... snakes-

 

Adrienne:

... pythons-

 

Tracie:

... condors.

 

Adrienne:

... giant raptors.

 

Tracie:

So, you can take, like, the scaly skin of the crocodile, the claws of the saber tooth tiger, and its saber teeth, the wings of the raptors, put them all together...

 

Jad:

Oh...

 

Robert:

So, this is all the old terrors rolled into one, like boom, together.

 

Tracie:

Yeah. They tap into all those fears that already, are already inside of us in theory.

 

Robert:

I'm gonna go for that one.

 

Jad:

Yeah, I like that. That works. That feels like an answer.

 

Paula:

Well, you know, like, like they're very powerful. I mean they could be very scary. They could be very destructive, but what's kind of magical in Game Of Thrones is that the intimate scenes also melt your heart and bring you closer to these creatures that should be, you know, burning your face off

 

Tracie:

Okay, I-I-I should admit that, I actually just used this whole dragon thing to talk to this lady at, from Game Of Thrones. [crosstalk 00:20:00] (Laughing) Her name is Paula Fairfield, and she makes all the dragon noises for Game Of Thrones.

 

Jad:

Oh, she makes dragons.

 

Tracie:

Right.

 

Robert:

What did you ask her, I guess is the real question. What did you want to know?

 

Tracie:

I wanted to know, like, I wanted to know, like, how does she make these sounds, and it was really interesting, 'cause, you know, were talking a little bit, uh, com-, you know how dragons are composite creatures, and she basically uses composites to make these noises.

 

Paula:

Oh yeah, yeah. I absolutely...

 

Tracie:

She takes the noises from birds-

 

Paula:

... reachy, shrieky bird sounds-

 

Tracie:

... insects-

 

Paula:

... different kinds reptilian recordings and stuff...

 

Jad:

Is it always the scary animals?

 

Tracie:

Well, it depends on what dragon that she, you know, which of the dragons that she's trying to actually, um, create a performance for.

 

Paula:

I have sounds on might choose simply by certain personality traits that I might want to push forward. Um, so in the case of Drogon...

 

Tracie:

So, on the show, there's Daenerys who's this dragon queen. She has three dragons, and one of them is named Drogon.

 

Paula:

And she named that dragon after Khal Drogo, her hot late husband. (laughs)

 

Tracie:

(laughs.

 

Paula:

So, Drogon is like her lover.

 

Tracie:

He kind of has like a very affectionate, sensual relationship with her.

 

Paula:

He's whistling at her all the time. He's looking at her butt and goin, "Oh baby." (laughs)

 

Tracie:

And so to sort of push forward this sort of, like, dragon sexual tension, I guess, she uses sounds of...

 

Paula:

Two giant tortoises, you know, mating.

 

Jad:

Oh, that's...

 

Robert:

Giant tortoises... what does that sound like?

 

Jad:

Wow.

 

Tracie:

Well, um, you know. I'll just play it.

 

Jad:

Whoa.

 

Robert:

Oh.

 

Paula:

The groan of the male actually became, with some work and, you know, adjustments and stuff, became the source, the basis for Drogon's pur with her.

 

Tracie:

With Daenerys.

 

Paula:

The funny thing about the pur with Drogon was watching people watch it and giggling when they heard it, but not really knowing why. To me, it's because it had that essence, that kind of sensual, sexual essence, that purr. Yeah, yeah I use from all kinds of things, and, you know, I also used for dragonfly wings to make that kind of funny flutter of the thorns, it's moving, like especially on the end of his tail this year. As he moved through there was like a chitter, and that was like dragonfly wings.

 

Jad:

Dragonfly wings?

 

Tracie:

Yeah.

 

Robert:

Really?

 

Tracie:

(laughs) I-I was wondering if you ever had a question about dragons that you would like to have answered?

 

Paula:

You know, no, it's curious, because I think that differentiates the dragons from creatures and makes them slightly other-worldly is the fire thing. Where did the idea for that come along?

 

Jad:

That's a good question.

 

Robert:

Yeah, where did that come from?

 

Adrienne:

Well, there are many theories about that...

 

Tracie:

Actually, I threw that question back to Adrienne Mayor.

 

Adrienne:

The one that I like is connected to the devastating weapon called Greek Fire.

 

Tracie:

It was this unquenchable fire.

 

Adrienne:

It can't be put out by water. In fact, it burns in water, and so it was a naval weapon, and I believe that scholars have found that some of the nozzles for blasting Greek Fire were shaped like dragons, so that the boat looked like it had a dragon on board breathing fire at the enemy ships-

 

Robert:

Oh.

 

Jad:

That's so cool.

 

Robert:

Wow.

 

Adrienne:

... and just stories of... they had dragons that breathed fire would make it back to, uh, to Northern Europe. That's the best theory I've heard.

 

Jad:

Oh, that's interesting. So, it's like if the dragon is a composite of all the things, creatures that have scared us, now we're a part of that composite.

 

Robert:

With our technology. It b-b-b-becomes part of the creature that frightens us.

 

Jad:

Thanks Tracie.

 

Tracie:

You're welcome.

 

Robert:

Who is...

 

Tracie:

What is ah...

 

Jad:

What is ah, ah, b-b-b-b

 

Tracie:

Um, what is...

 

Jad:

Huh...

 

Tracie:

Who is... Uh...

 

Robert:

Hm...

 

Jad:

Uh... Uh...

 

Robert:

Anything coming to mind?

 

Jad:

What is ah...

 

Tracie:

Oh...

 

Jad:

Oh... Say something. Hurry.

 

Robert:

It's a fedora.

 

Tracie:

Should have known that.

 

Robert:

You should have known that. All right were gonna take a break.

 

Marnie:

This is Marnie Campbell from the beautiful banks of Lake Washington in Seattle, Washington. RadioLab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology, and the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

announcer 2:

Great podcast deserve a great platform. That's why Pocketcast delivers a beautifully designed, simple, but powerful experience that offers more control. It's the premium app for podcast listening, search, and discovery, and it's now free. Download Pocketcast today at pocketcast.com or find us in the apple app or Google playstore.

 

Jad:

Jad.

 

Robert:

Robert.

 

Jad:

RadioLab.

 

Robert:

And we are back.

 

Jad:

With more questions.

 

Robert:

Next one comes from producer, Rachel Cusick.

 

Rachel:

So, this question comes from Liam Humburger from Denver, Colorado.

 

Liam:

I was browsing on my Instagram feed, a-and there was this scene where the picture was of the husband and wife trying to go to sleep. The wife was looking away, and she was, like, looking irritated, and then the husband was looking, like, just kind of confused [inaudible 00:26:35], and the caption above her was, "He's probably thinking of other girls" and then him, "I wonder if I've ever bought milk from the same cow twice."

 

Robert:

What'd he say?

 

Jad:

I wonder what?

 

Rachel:

So, he said, "I wonder if I've ever bought milk from the same cow twice." So, if I go to the store, I buy a gallon of milk, and then I go back maybe a week later and get another gallon of milk. What are the odds that the same cow is in both of those gallons of milk.

 

Jad:

I see.

 

Art:

I would say the answer is almost certainly yes, 100%.

 

Rachel:

That's Art Benjamin. He's a math professor.

 

Art:

At Harvey Mudd College in Clairmont, California, and I'm also a mathematician.

 

Robert:

And how is he so sure it's 100%?

 

Rachel:

According to Art Benjamin it all comes down to, ah...

 

Art:

Probability, statistics, and dare I say, calculus.

 

Rachel:

So, take a farm like Dale's here...

 

Dale:

Okay, here we go. My name is Dale Madone, Pine Hollow Dairy.

 

Rachel:

Dale has about 1,000 cows, and 20 at a time, these cows walk into a milking parlor. They line up. It looks like a wishbone-

 

Dale:

All day and all night long-

 

Rachel:

... and they get hooked up with these black rubber hoses.

 

Dale:

... [inaudible 00:27:44] here, and every once in a while is the guy putting the machine on a cow, and he hits the button, and it turns on the vacuum, and he-

 

Rachel:

... pumps the milk out of the udders into this big hose along the bottom of the floor-

 

Dale:

... running through the hose down into this line-

 

Rachel:

... and it's meeting up with the milk from the other cows, and then it goes from that room into another room where it gets cooled down.

 

Dale:

This is the milk out. Put your hand on this pipe.

 

Rachel:

Oh my gosh, it's cold. There's condensation on it.

 

Dale:

It's very cold...

 

Rachel:

Once it's cooled down, it goes into this rocket ship-looking thing outside called a milk silo, where all the milk from Dale's farm is just hanging out together. The silo gets filled up, and up, and up until it's full.

 

Dale:

We're sending out over 8,000 gallons of milk a day on a tractor trailer.

 

Rachel:

This truck comes along, picks up that milk, and it stops at another farm, and another farm, and another farm until the truck is full.

 

Dale:

Right full.

 

Rachel:

It goes to the processing plant, and once you're at the processing plant, all that milk is just mixed around even more with milk from all the cows in the region. And-

 

Art:

On a second look, I still have my back of the envelope that has the calculation here-

 

Rachel:

Here's where the math comes in.

 

Art:

... there are about 90,000 drops of milk in a gallon, and, oh I don't know, 100,000 cows who are contributing to a particular processing plant-

 

Rachel:

... when you run the odds a drop of milk from any one cow getting into any particular gallon-

 

Art:

... it's probably the case every gallon of milk contains most of the cows contributing.

 

Rachel:

... and here's the thing. In one drop of milk you could probably have a bunch of different milk molecules from a bunch of different cows.

 

Art:

... and so one glass of milk might have thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of different cow molecules in my glass of milk.

 

Rachel:

Wow, that's crazy. Oh my gosh.

 

Art:

(laughs)

 

Rachel:

So going back to Liam's original question, uh, Art's argument is that, when you're drinking a glass of milk, there's, like, so many different bits of milk from so many different cows-

 

Art:

That it's probably the case that after just two glasses of milk, you're almost certain to have a cow that was represented in both of them.

 

Rachel:

So, you're bound to run into at least a little bit of one of those 100,000 cows again.

 

Art:

This is the point being that every glass of milk has thousands and thousands of different contributing to it.

 

Robert:

(laughs)

 

Jad:

A little bit of 10,000 cows in every glass. Wow.

 

Robert:

In every glass of milk.

 

Rachel:

(laughs)

 

Jad:

I love that.

 

Robert:

I don't know that I do.

 

Jad:

No, it's great. It's like you're enjoying the collective efforts of this entire species almost.

 

Rachel:

(laughs)

 

Robert:

No, no. I think it should be the product of one or two cows that you can picture in your head and maybe pat on the nose.

 

Rachel:

(laughs)

 

Robert:

Thank you, you could say.

 

Rachel:

Yeah, I don't know. I'm with both of you. I feel like it weirds me out, but I also think it's kind of cool at the same time.

 

Robert:

Well, you know, b-but come to think of it, what happens if you drink a glass of milk in New York, get on a plane, fly to Atlanta, then have another glass of milk. Are you getting the same 10,000 in each glass, or are they a different 10,000.

 

Rachel:

Yeah, so I tried to calling around a little bit to answer that question, and it seems like no one really wants to pay to ship milk that far, and so, basically, a different processing plant might mean a whole different group of cows.

 

everybody:

Oh...

 

Rachel:

Yeah. (laughs) If you really want to figure exactly which plant your milk is coming from, you can go to whereismymilkfrom.com

 

Robert:

Really?

 

Rachel:

Yeah. And you input a little code on the top of your carton and see how often that number comes up again. Each processing plant has its own code.

 

Jad:

Thank you, Rachel.

 

Rachel:

Thank you, and just a big thanks to dairy farmer, Dale Madone over at Pine Hollow Dairy.

 

Rachel:

Are you a big milk drinker?

 

Dale:

Oh yeah.

 

Rachel:

How often do you drink milk?

 

Dale:

Oh, well, I have it on my cereal in the morning, and I have a glass or two for lunch and a glass or two for dinner, probably two glasses each meal. If I don't drink milk, I don't feel good. Like, if I go away on vacation and a lot of times you go... (music)

 

Matt:

This next one came from a couple-

 

Marie:

Hello.

 

Matt:

... hello, is this Marie?

 

Marie:

Yep.

 

Matt:

This is Matt Kielty calling from RadioLab. How are you?

 

Marie:

I'm the same. I have you on speakerphone, and Zack is right here.

 

Matt:

Oh hey Zack.

 

Zack:

Hi Matt.

 

Matt:

How's it going?

 

Zack:

Good.

 

Marie:

Good.

 

Matt:

So, Zack and Marie, it was years ago, actually, they sent us an email about what I think is one of the most confounding, perplexing, mysterious devices that you can find inside of anybody's home. Okay, so the microwave. I guess, I guess what I wondering is how, one, why were you microwaving peppers? And two, do you remember the moment this happened?

 

Marie:

Oh I know what it is. I know exactly what happened. So...

 

Matt:

Okay, so quick scene set, Portland, Maine, kitchen around dinner time.

 

Zack:

I think we were, like, cooking, ah, tomato sauce...

 

Matt:

Zach was on bell pepper duty.

 

Marie:

Trying to take shortcut, stick them in the microwave to make them a little warmer or soft, or something, and I said, "Oh Zack, don't put those in the microwave, they'll spark."

 

Matt:

And Zack was just, like...

 

Zack:

Hm...

 

Marie:

"You're crazy." (laughs)

 

Zack:

Hogwash. I don't believe you at all, and, ah...

 

Matt:

He's like, no, no, no.

 

Marie:

I remember seeing it as a kid.

 

Matt:

She said there was a couple times her mom put some peppers in a microwave, and they sparked.

 

Marie:

Yes.

 

Zack:

My first thought was that-

 

Marie:

My memory was wrong.

 

Zack:

... that's what I thought, that your memory was wrong.

 

Matt:

Like there must have been a piece of metal in the microwave, you just don't remember that.

 

Zack:

And that's what was sparking out, 'cause vegetables wouldn't do that.

 

Matt:

And this is going back and forth, and yes and no, and sparks and nothing until...

 

Zack:

I think it was we have the ability to find this out and, ah, prove that it's wrong...

 

Matt:

So, that was like five years ago in the past, so we decided that we would actually do our own experiment in the present to get to the bottom of this. Do green peppers spark in the microwave. Maserati... first things first. I actually went and bought a microwave.

 

Craigs-L dude:

(laughs) Hey, how's it going?

 

Matt:

Off the guy on Craig's List. Ah, yeah, so fifty bucks?

 

Craigs-L dude:

Fifty bucks.

 

Matt:

Fifty bucks, all right.

 

Craigs-L dude:

Ah, baby.

 

Matt:

Then carried it, like, eight blocks back to work. Holy (bleep). Also, bought a bunch of groceries because we were going to do more than just the peppers test, and for reasons I'd rather not get into, I decided not to start with the peppers.

 

Matt:

Baby carrots.

 

Annie:

Baby carrots just little carrots?

 

Matt:

Yeah. Producer Annie McEwen

 

Annie:

I used to work in a kitchen.

 

Matt:

Really?

 

Annie:

Yeah.

 

Matt:

Couldn't tell.

 

Annie:

(laughs)

 

Matt:

Carrots... And as the great Ronco says of infomercial fame.

 

Annie:

I don't know who the great Ronco is. Great Ronco?

 

everybody:

Set it and forget it.

 

Matt:

All right, two minutes, let's see what happens. And all the sudden...

 

Annie:

My god.

 

Matt:

This little yellow spark just shot from one of our slices of carrots.

 

Annie:

That was crazy. This little spark. Oh yeah, there.

 

Matt:

You see another one?

 

Annie:

Yeah. I just saw a little flash. Wow, a little tiny spark.

 

Matt:

Mm... carrots.

 

Annie:

Mm... carrots. Okay, next.

 

Matt:

Kale.

 

everybody:

Set it and forget it.

 

Matt:

This is where it gets a little crazy, 'cause the kale... oh...

 

Annie:

There.

 

Matt:

Same thing.

 

Annie:

What?

 

Matt:

Boom-boom-boom. Sparks.

 

Annie:

It's smoke. It's, there's smoke. Let's stop it th-th-th-th there's smoke, I smell smoke, smell that. Jesus.

 

Matt:

Delicioso.

 

Annie:

That is smoke.

 

Matt:

Um, we're gonna try blueberries.

 

Annie:

Ready, set it...

 

everybody:

And forget it.

 

Matt:

Whoa.

 

Annie:

Whoa, it's hot.

 

Matt:

We started to draw a bit of a crowd in the studio.

 

Speaker 25:

W-why was electricity coming out of the blueberry?

 

Matt:

Up next.

 

Annie:

Grapes, grapitos-

 

Matt:

Grapes.

 

Annie:

... grapatiti's, grapanini's.

 

Matt:

Ready?

 

Annie:

Ready.

 

Matt:

Time cook. You set it.

 

everybody:

And forget it. Whoa.

 

Annie:

Whoa, my god. Look at it go...

 

Matt:

All right, what's up next?

 

Annie:

Okay, jumbo franks.

 

Matt:

I got turkey franks. Set it.

 

Annie:

Spread it.

 

everybody:

And forget it.

 

Annie:

Oh, oh, I saw one. Oh my gosh.

 

Matt:

Oh, okay, pepper. You set it.

 

everybody:

Oh, whoa.

 

Matt:

Okay, both red and green bell peppers. Green was crazy.

 

everybody:

Yay, peppers. (clapping)

 

Matt:

We also through in some diced up tomatoes, pears, decretive gourd...

 

Annie:

Are we gonna get buyer for this...

 

Matt:

And also, a Flaming Lips CD.

 

everybody:

There we go. Who needs fireworks when you got a CD in the... this is crazy.

 

Matt:

Stop, stop, everyone stop.

 

Annie:

Yeah, 'cause I don't wanna, yeah. Is it gonna, it looks like it was on fire.

 

Speaker 26:

Is it smoking in here?

 

Speaker 27:

Yes, it's definitely smoking

 

Speaker 28:

Whoa, that smells really bad.

 

Matt:

All right, let's take a break.

 

everybody:

(coughing) Yeah we want to keep this door open...

 

Matt:

What did you say to Marie after the peppers sparked in the microwave?

 

Zack:

I think I was, I don't know, I was probably speechless.

 

Marie:

(laughs)

 

Zack:

I was, ah, can't believe that you're right about this.

 

Matt:

And Marie, did you say anything in return?

 

Marie:

Um, probably something to the affect of, I told you so.

 

Matt:

So peppers spark in the microwave. That was settled, but then there was the debate about...

 

Zack:

Marie doesn't believe my understanding of how microwaves work.

 

Matt:

Why?

 

Zack:

Maybe it's just that pepper has a lot of moisture in it?

 

Matt:

Zach, maybe it's you put the pepper in the microwave. All that water gets really hot.

 

Zack:

The skin acts as, like, tinder, and that lights on fire quickly.

 

Matt:

But Marie...

 

Marie:

We always have peppers in house, and I think that the green ones taste a little bit metallic.

 

Matt:

To her, it's, maybe these peppers just have, like, some little bit of metal in there that's sparking.

 

Marie:

Yeah. So is your next step to find the appropriate scientist?

 

Matt:

Oh yeah. I'm definitely gonna try and put this case to bed.

 

Speaker 29:

So, just give us one moment.

 

Matt:

I ended up tracking down this woman. Is it Caroline or Carolyn? Is it...

 

Caroline:

Caro-It's Caroline.

 

Speaker 29:

Caroline, okay.

 

Matt:

Her name is Caroline Ross.

 

Caroline:

I'm a professor in the department of Material Science and Engineering at MIT.

 

Speaker 29:

An experienced microwaver?

 

Caroline:

I've done it with roast potatoes.

 

Matt:

Oh, you've seen sparks.

 

Caroline:

Yeah, I've seen sparks from roast potatoes.

 

Matt:

Huh.

 

Speaker 29:

All right, so yeah. Maybe we should just like...

 

Matt:

So, I asked her in the case of the peppers or the roast potatoes, or the grapes, like all the different food that we tried, like, what happens in a microwave that makes the food just go like (verbal noise).

 

Caroline:

Right.

 

Matt:

So let's say I got some pieces of pepper, put them in the microwave, I press start, like, what happens next?

 

Caroline:

Okay, so there is a gadget in the microwave oven that produces the microwave. It's called a magnetron, and it's an interesting thing in itself.

 

Matt:

Okay, quick side note. It's basically like this hunk of metal that makes the microwaves, but Caroline told me this really cool thing, which is this used to be used in WWII for radar.

 

Caroline:

That was in the 40's, an in 1945, there was an engineer, Raytheon, who was working on these devices, and he found that some candy bar he had in his pocket got hot.

 

Matt:

He's like, "Oh, this cooks food." So eventually, a magnatron got thrown inside of a metal box, and thus was born the microwave.

 

Caroline:

So it's an interesting thing in itself, but it produces the beam of microwaves, and they bounce around inside the microwave oven, moving at the speed of light.

 

Matt:

And what are they... are they pounding into the pepper, or maybe they not pound, but like, like shooting into the pepper.

 

Caroline:

They're being absorbed.

 

Matt:

Absorbed.

 

Caroline:

Yeah, they're being absorbed, and these microwaves, they are the right kind of frequency to cause the molecules in food to osculate back and forth.

 

Matt:

Oh.

 

Caroline:

You've put a pepper in there, so the pepper's got a lot of water in it. It's got other things as well. Um, and those molecules start absorbing the microwaves and dancing back and forth, and hitting each other, and heating up. And then that bit gets even hotter and even hotter, and eventually, it could burst into flames.

 

Matt:

But that is not what we're seeing with our pepper or any of the food in the microwave. It's not.

 

Speaker 29:

No, because as Caroline explained to me, a flame is very different than a spark.

 

Caroline:

So, one thing to keep in mind is that the pepper is fairly conductive. It's got all this water in it. We know that water can conduct electricity-

 

Matt:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Caroline:

... and the water isn't pure. It has a lot of salts dissolved in it-

 

Matt:

Ah, okay.

 

Caroline:

... minerals, things like that. In that sense, it's a little bit like a piece of metal. Metal, as we know, absorbs microwave energy rather well.

 

Matt:

As we all know.

 

Caroline:

Yes. (laughs) So...

 

Matt:

Okay, let's say you get these pieces of pepper in a microwave, and they're heating up. Now, the thing is, the microwave, like the wave itself-

 

Caroline:

It has an electric field, which osculates back and forth at rather a high frequency-

 

Matt:

... so when these microwaves shoot into these pieces of pepper, what happens is this electricity starts-

 

Caroline:

... swishing back and forth-

 

Matt:

... through the bits of pepper-

 

Caroline:

... so there's a current flowing-

 

Matt:

... and as more microwaves are absorbed into these bits of pepper-

 

Caroline:

... you can get quite big currents-

 

Matt:

... currents so big that they create electric field around the food-

 

Caroline:

... and that electric field builds up, and up, and up, and eventually, it's big enough to cause the air to glow around the food-

 

Matt:

... because now, there's actually electricity coursing through the air-

 

Caroline:

... like a florescent light bulb-

 

Matt:

And Caroline says at this point you can start to see-

 

Caroline:

... these glowing balls of gas floating.

 

Matt:

... it's actually the air turning into plasma. Now, back in the center of the microwave are little bits of pepper where there is still this electrical current-

 

Caroline:

... swishing back and forth through those bits of pepper, and if you have sharp corners-

 

Matt:

... like the corners of a pepper or even on the skin, like these tiny microscopic little points, the electricity in the pepper, the electricity in the air-

 

Caroline:

... can bet concentrated at those sharp corners, like a lightning rod-

 

Matt:

... and at those corners, the electricity will just build, and build, and build, until...

 

everybody:

Whoa.

 

Caroline:

You got a mini-lightning bolt.

 

everybody:

Why, why, why...

 

Matt:

And then Caroline said that everything in the microwave just sort of calms down.

 

Caroline:

Until the electric field builds up again, and it does it all over, letting loose these mini-lightning bolts. So, it's a very dynamic process. You've got things being ionized. You've got things recombining. You've got charge flowing. You've to light being emitted. Things get hot. There's a big current flowing, all for that tiny fraction of a second. A lot of quantum physics in there.

 

Matt:

(laughs)

 

Caroline:

(laughs)

 

Matt:

And then we hear a little ding-

 

Caroline:

Yep.

 

Matt:

... and then-

 

Caroline:

We're done.

 

Matt:

... and then we're done. But, I just had one last job to do.

 

Matt:

How you two doing?

 

Marie:

We're good.

 

Zack:

Good.

 

Matt:

Okay, all right, so I think...

 

Matt:

Called up Zack and Marie and told everything I learned about their sparking pepper, and that even though both of them didn't have the exact theory, like Zack was right, water's an important part, Marie was, you know, kinda on with something with this metal thing.

 

Marie:

Yep.

 

Matt:

It feels like it's almost like a little bit like ah, a marriage of sorts, pardon the pun, between both your ideas that ah, kind of, of, is what is happening inside this black box.

 

Zack:

Right.

 

Matt:

So, yeah.

 

Zack:

So I think we were, we had some, some of the elements there.

 

Matt:

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Zack:

Yeah.

 

Matt:

Um, so that's ah, that's about it.

 

Marie:

Okay

 

Zack:

Excellent.

 

Matt:

Oh, there was one thing that I actually thought was kinda interesting in all these questions we were getting in, there was this tiny little pattern of, of married couples sending us in, ah-

 

Annie:

(laughs)

 

Matt:

... arguments that they got in (laughs). There was one couple that was, like... they were arguing about the nutritional value of microwaving a potato, um-

 

Annie:

(laughs)

 

Matt:

... there was another couple that sent in a very long email about how they'd been debating about how we perceive color, um-

 

Annie:

We've actually had a similar dispute.

 

Speaker 29:

Yeah, that's true.

 

Matt:

Oh. Over color.

 

Annie:

Ah, it was the couch.

 

Speaker 29:

Oh yeah.

 

Matt:

(laughs)

 

Annie:

There was a couch that we had, and it was some sort of, like, drab tone that I thought was green, and you thought was brown.

 

Speaker 29:

Gray, I, it was-

 

Annie:

Gray, ah, okay.

 

Speaker 29:

... yeah. I think I... yeah, we had that couch for, like, between different houses and different combinations for probably, like, five or six years, and maybe seven years, ten years, and, ah-

 

Annie:

Put a lot of life in it.

 

Speaker 29:

... and I was, yeah, I always thought it was gray, still do, but apparently, you and your sister thought it was green. You're like, we had that for years and just never realized you're seeing something completely different... (laughs) I'm like, "What do you mean our green couch? I had no idea we even have a green couch."

 

announcer:

Producer, Matt Kielty.

 

Speaker 29:

So, that's just a few of the questions you asked us, which we tried to answer, but that's just the first part of our effort. We have another whole sequence of questions and answers coming up.

 

Matt:

So, if your question hasn't been answered yet, um, hang tight.

 

Speaker 29:

You never know, the next batch-

 

Matt:

You never know.

 

Speaker 29:

... could include your question.

 

Matt:

And it's coming very, very soon.

 

Speaker 31:

Why do humans have two feet?

 

Speaker 32:

When are we going to be able to fax a pencil?

 

Speaker 33:

Do the little leaves go through the little headphone string? I don't know... [crosstalk 00:45:23]

 

announcer 2:

Hi this is Marie Mueller calling from Portland, Maine, with Nora Mueller and Calvin Mueller in the background. RadioLab was created by Jab Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design, Miara Matasar Pailla is our managing director. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wac, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster, with help from Amanda Aronczyk, prema oliaee, David Foxx, Nigar Fatali, EB Wang, and Katie Ferguson. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris. Thanks, RadioLab.

 

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