Jan 17, 2014

Black Box

This hour, we examine three very different kinds of black boxes—those peculiar spaces where it’s clear what’s going in, we know what’s coming out, but what happens in-between is a mystery. From the darkest parts of metamorphosis, to a sixty year-old secret among magicians, to the nature of consciousness itself, we confront the stubborn gaps in our understanding.

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[RADIOLAB SHOW INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Batting first, producer Tim Howard.

 

TIM HOWARD: Cool. Wait, I'm just gonna get my level here. Da da bop be doo. It is such a beautiful day.

 

PATRICK PURDON: It's beautiful. I think it's got to be, like, 75 degrees out or something. Sunny.

 

TIM: This is Patrick Purdon. He's a professor in anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, and works at Mass General Hospital.

 

TIM: You want to just tell me where we are?

 

PATRICK PURDON: We're standing right now in front of the Bullfinch Building, which ...

 

TIM: And I went up to talk to him because in that building ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Is ...

 

TIM: This is the one? With the Etherdome?

 

PATRICK PURDON: Etherdome is inside this building.

 

TIM: Is the story of the day that you could say humanity emerged from the Dark Ages.

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

TIM: Oh, you laugh now. Just wait.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Okay, here we go. It's on the fourth floor. It's on the fourth floor of this building.

 

TIM: We headed in. Up three flights of stairs into this room.

 

TIM: What a cool room. Oh, my God! Is this, like -- how would you describe it.

 

PATRICK PURDON: It's like a mini-amphitheater, right?

 

TIM: It's also got this awesome dome.

 

TIM: It's this beautiful, domed room with lights streaming down from above.

 

TIM: [makes trilling noise] Like, the acoustics in here are crazy. It must been terrifying though, if you actually heard somebody screaming.

 

PATRICK PURDON: I mean, it's so resonant in here, the screams would have been deafening and absolutely would have been terrifying.

 

ROBERT KRULWICH: What is this place?

 

TIM: Well, this was an operating room.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

TIM: And back in the 1800s, when this room was really in use ...

 

JULIE FENSTER: Being in an operation was so painful, it was often permanently damaging to a patient's emotional state.

 

TIM: This is Julie.

 

JULIE FENSTER: I'm Julie Fenster. I write about American history.

 

TIM: She wrote a book called Ether Day, which goes into a lot of detail about the dark, dark days of surgery in the early 1800s. Back then, during surgery there were no painkillers and patients were awake. Probably more awake than they'd ever been in their whole lives.

 

JULIE FENSTER: Some of the patients remembered the sound of their limb dropping to the ground, or the saw going through their sinew and bones. The smell of their own body being cut into. Usually, a surgeon would employ six burly men to hold a patient down. And instead of having an operation, some people committed suicide before they would face going into an operating room, which were usually located on the top floor of a hospital. In part, because the hospital really didn't do itself a lot of good to have the screams heard by passers-by.

 

TIM: This is such a cool room.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Here we are at the top of the Etherdome.

 

TIM: But then everything changes. October 16th, 1846. It's a Friday morning.

 

TIM: I assume the room is full?

 

PATRICK PURDON: The room is absolutely full.

 

JULIE FENSTER: The students were all lined up to watch.

 

TIM: Crowded in the bleachers because they had heard something big was going to go down. And right there in the middle of the room is ...

 

JULIE FENSTER: The most esteemed surgeon in America, Dr. John Warren.

 

TIM: About to do an operation. He brought in a patient who needed a tumor taken out of his neck, and he was just about to slice into the guy ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Just about to start the surgery ...

 

TIM: When this mustachioed fellow bursts in. A dentist.

 

JULIE FENSTER: William T. G. Morton.

 

TIM: And he basically said to Warren something that must have sounded completely nuts. "I can erase that man's pain." He didn't actually use those words. He actually had an appointment with Warren. But according to Julie, he did have a bag.

 

JULIE FENSTER: He had a bag filled with gas.

 

TIM: A gas called ether.

 

JULIE FENSTER: And Dr. Warren, who had the scalpel raised ...

 

TIM: He puts it down.

 

JULIE FENSTER: ... stands aside and says with great sarcasm ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: "Well sir, your patient is ready."

 

JAD: Wait a second. Has he ever tested this?

 

TIM: He claimed to have tried it out on some dental patients and ...

 

JULIE FENSTER: On his dog, on himself, and on his goldfish.

 

JAD: Nice.

 

TIM: So Morton gets to work.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Morton sets up his gear, fills up the inhaler ...

 

TIM: Puts it up to the guy's face.

 

PATRICK PURDON: And actually, because the valve system had just been constructed and he hadn't tested it, he actually literally had to manually operate the valves with every inhale and exhale of the patient. So he administers the ether using this inhaler. After about three or four minutes, the patient becomes unconscious. And just at that moment, Morton turns to Warren and says ...

 

JULIE FENSTER: "Your patient, sir."

 

TIM: Dr. Warren brings the scalpel down to the patient's neck and cuts. And really for the first time in that room, you could hear the scalpel, you could hear the breathing.

 

JULIE FENSTER: The silence was far more deafening than all the screams that had ever been heard in that operating theater. No squirming, no moving, no bulging eyes, no clenched fists.

 

TIM: It must have felt like a miracle.

 

[MUSIC IN]

 

JULIE FENSTER: This -- the news of the operation went around the world as fast as anything. News of, you know, war or peace didn't travel faster than this. By the end of the year, doctors in Europe were using surgical anesthetics.

 

TIM: In basically the blink of an eye, the most painful, horrible experience possibly imaginable became routine, even forgettable.

 

[MUSIC OUT]

 

JAD: But also deeply peculiar, as was made clear to us when we talked a while back with one of our regulars.

 

ROBERT: Carl Zimmer.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Well, my wife and I, we were watching this movie one night. It was called Birth, starring Nicole Kidman.

 

JAD: Oh, did you like it?

 

CARL ZIMMER: I hated it.

 

JAD: No! It's one of my favorites.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Well, okay. I'm sitting there and I'm hating the movie.

 

JAD: You're hating this movie?

 

CARL ZIMMER: Well, I'm just wondering, like, why am I reacting so negatively to this movie? I'm just in such a bad mood. I'm feeling lousy, and I think it's the movie. And I stand up and I say, "Oh, wait a minute. My abdomen is in incredible pain."

 

JAD: Oh, so it's not the movie.

 

CARL ZIMMER: It's not the movie, it's me.

 

JAD: Appendix about to burst.

 

CARL ZIMMER: We go to the hospital, and maybe 4:00 in the morning, 5:00 in the morning, they're prepping me for surgery. They, you know, put an IV in me and then they're like, "Okay, now we're going to be putting in the anesthetic, you know? So just relax and this will be taking effect."

 

JAD: But he says it didn't seem to be working.

 

CARL ZIMMER: So I start thinking about what they're going to be doing to me in half an hour. They're gonna, like, take these knives and they're gonna cut me open. They're gonna rip my intestines apart. They're gonna pull off this inflamed appendix. They're gonna sew up the intestines. They're gonna zip everything back up, and all this is gonna happen supposedly without me being aware of it. And I'm not having any part of it. [laughs] I just said -- I just was, like, lying there saying, "I don't think this is working. I'm not feeling anything. You're gonna have to do something more. I just want you to know that I'm not [FINGERS SNAP]

 

CARL ZIMMER: And then I was in another room and there was no one else there. Where did they all go?

 

JAD: Huh.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Like, they had all left. And then -- and then it occurred to me, like, "No. Oh. Oh! The whole surgery's already happened."

 

JAD: Wow, that is weird.

 

ROBERT: I've -- it's happened to me. It's as if they spliced time, take the time that you were in and the time that you are in subsequently, and the middle is totally missing. No experience whatsoever.

 

CARL ZIMMER: It's not like sleep.

 

ROBERT: No.

 

CARL ZIMMER: There was no like, "Oh, I'm getting sleepy." I was arguing with my doctors that they didn't know how to do their job, and the next thing I'm in a hospital room with my appendix out and it's 10 hours later.

 

JAD: It sort of implies that it's like a switch.

 

CARL ZIMMER: It is, and that's what happens. I mean, when you raise the level of anesthesia in someone, and they've done studies on this, it isn't a gentle gradation down. You just -- you raise it up, you raise it up and then foom! You are into this other state.

 

ROBERT: Do -- do people who do this for a living know exactly why this happened?

 

CARL ZIMMER: You'd think that something that's been around since 1846 would be hammered out solid.

 

[MUSIC IN]

 

CARL ZIMMER: But it's still almost a philosophical kind of mystery.

 

ROBERT: There's a term for this in physics. It's called a black box.

 

JAD: It refers to a system where you can see what goes in, you can see that something different comes out.

 

ROBERT: And you wonder, like, what happened there in the middle?

 

JAD: But you can't see it.

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

JAD: It's a mystery.

 

ROBERT: It's black and it's closed up. Therefore the box.

 

JAD: I mean, it might not literally be a box. But today we have three different attempts ...

 

ROBERT: ... to open three very different black boxes.

 

JAD: Starting with the box that's in front of us now. That gap that Carl talked about where you go [SNAPS FINGERS] boom!

 

ROBERT: You're gone.

 

JAD: And then [SNAPS FINGERS] suddenly you're back. What happens in that gap?

 

TIM: That's what's crazy. It's been almost a 170 years since William Morton did his thing in front of those med students, and we've moved way beyond ether.

 

PATRICK PURDON: So here we got propofol. We got sevoflurane, dexmedetomidine, ketamine.

 

TIM: We've got all these new drugs, but we still don't know exactly how they work. Which for Patrick is a very practical problem.

 

PATRICK PURDON: It's very difficult actually to figure out when people, you know, aren't conscious, because they can always be internally conscious to some degree, right?

 

TIM: And in the 1950s and '60s he says, this became a real issue, because doctors started giving patients ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Neuromuscular blocking agents.

 

TIM: That would paralyze their muscles during surgery so they wouldn't flop around, which is a good thing. But then you'd have these situations once in a blue moon where a patient would wake up in the middle of surgery ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Literally trapped, unable to move.

 

TIM: Eyes closed, totally still.

 

PATRICK PURDON: You know, fully awake, but no one would be able to perceive it because they couldn't move.

 

TIM: And that's the nightmare that, you know, may even be worse than having six strong men hold you down.

 

JAD: Oof. Yeah, we don't have to dwell on that.

 

TIM: Well, I actually did find a bunch of these stories.

 

JAD: I don't want to hear them.

 

TIM: No, they're great. I mean, they're -- they're -- they're amazing. But, all right.

 

ROBERT: I'd like to hear about it.

 

JAD: No!

 

ROBERT: I'm just saying.

 

TIM: Here, I'll just play you one.

 

JAD: No! I -- no!

 

TIM: All right, all right, all right. You are gonna regret it, but -- well anyway, the larger point is that if you can't understand how and why anesthesia works, then you're not gonna be able to explain why every so often it just doesn't work.

 

JAD: Really? How often is every so often?

 

TIM: I've heard different numbers. Anywhere between 1 in 10,000 to much more often, like 1 in 1,000.

 

JAD: Wow!

 

TIM: But luckily ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Let's take a look at these brain signals ...

 

TIM: In the last few decades, scientists have begun to shine a little pin light into this black box. And Patrick and his team in particular, have found something pretty cool.

 

PATRICK PURDON: This experiment that we did in the, I guess, late 2000s.

 

TIM: A couple years ago, they wanted to know what happens in the brain right when that -- foom! -- switch flips. So they got a bunch of volunteers ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Healthy volunteers who ...

 

TIM: They hooked them up to an IV and started to very, very slowly give them propofol.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Slowly administer the drug ...

 

TIM: Which is a big anesthetic. And as they did, they told the subjects to click a button every time they heard a sound or a word ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Chair. Library.

 

TIM: ... that they recognized.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Submarine. You know, something like that. In addition, we had the subject's name, too. Tim. Patrick.

 

TIM: So the subjects would just sit there and listen and click.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Chair. Library.

 

TIM: On and on.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Patrick.

 

TIM: And every 15 minutes, they gave them a little bit more propofol.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Submarine. Tim.

 

TIM: Until eventually, they just stopped responding altogether. They were just out cold. Now throughout this whole time, Patrick and his team were measuring the brain waves of the subjects. That's the key. And he says what they saw right at the moment that that switch flipped ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Right at the moment of loss of consciousness, there was just one really, really clear motif that appeared.

 

TIM: They saw this wave of electricity sweeping across the brain.

 

PATRICK PURDON: This really low frequency oscillation, about one cycle per second or less. And in addition to that, there was this higher frequency piece -- an alpha wave that appeared at the front of the head at that loss of consciousness moment.

 

JAD: So when people went under, their brains just started to ring like a bell?

 

TIM: Basically.

 

JAD: And why would those -- what are those waves doing exactly?

 

TIM: It seems like those ways might be imposing a kind of deadly order on the brain. And this is the thing that's very counterintuitive. You think that consciousness is order and synchrony, but it turns out that it's kind of the opposite, that consciousness is actually chaotic and noisy. It's all of those different parts of the brain, you know, facial recognition, touch, sound, language, engaged in this crazily complicated, multi-layered conversation.

 

CARL ZIMMER: You know, it's one person talking, the other one talking back.

 

TIM: This is Carl Zimmer again, and he says one of the hallmarks of the conscious brain is that you see a -- a kind of conversational logic. A back and forth between the different parts.

 

JAD: Yeah. My turn, your turn, my turn, your turn.

 

CARL ZIMMER: The things you're seeing create signals in the back of your head. They go to the front of your head. Back again. Forward and back and forward and back and forward and back and forward and back. And you can use this eavesdropping to calculate how connected the brain is. What they call connectivity. And when you're awake, you have a lot of connectivity. When you're dreaming, you also have a lot of connectivity. And then if someone gives you anesthesia, like in a matter of a second your connectivity just collapses.

 

JAD: Oh, maybe that's what happened to you. It just cut -- your connectivity got cut.

 

CARL ZIMMER: It did.

 

TIM: And here is the weird part.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Scientists will, like, play a sound to somebody who's under with anesthesia, and they can see that actually the part of the brain that processes sound, the auditory cortex, is active.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

CARL ZIMMER: It takes in the sound. So your brain is hearing sounds ...

 

JAD: That's spooky.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Yeah.

 

TIM: So what could be happening is that when you're under anesthesia, all the different parts of your brain to some degree, they could be awake.

 

CARL ZIMMER: It's not -- not your brain is just stopping.

 

TIM: No. All those parts of the brain are still talking, they're just not talking to each other ...

 

CARL ZIMMER: ... very well anymore.

 

TIM: And that somehow knocks you out.

 

JAD: So lots of chit-chat amongst the different parts of my brain make me conscious, and not so much chit-chat equals unconsciousness.

 

TIM: Yeah, that's the idea.

 

JAD: And how do the slow waves relate to that?

 

TIM: Well, Patrick thinks of it in -- sort of in baseball terms.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Right. So actually, I was at a Red Sox game the other day. It was the last one that they had with the -- with the Yankees at Fenway Park this year. And at some point the wave started. So some part of the stadium decided to go into the wave, and here you go, the wave's coming around and coming around and you're watching it, and it keeps coming around and coming around. And you know, after a while it gets really tiresome. Because you're sitting there and you're just like, "Okay. I've gotta wait for the wave to come. Okay, here it is again. Okay, stand up, raise our arms, you sit back down. And -- and just a moment later like, "Oh, my God. I got to stand up again." And -- and you're waiting. "Oh dude, it's back again." And -- and the thing is that when the wave is going on in the stadium, you can't really carry on a normal conversation. You can't have a normal interaction. You may not even be able to have a normal thought, because the thing is just coming by every couple seconds to interrupt you. That is sort of the rationale for how these oscillations disrupt brain activity.

 

JAD: I dig the analogy, but I'm not quite following.

 

TIM: It helps to -- to zoom in on the brain and look at a smaller number of neurons.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

TIM: Which is what he did.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Now check this out.

 

[MUSIC IN]

 

PATRICK PURDON: We conducted this study where we measured brain activity in individual neurons.

 

TIM: They got some patients. Planted these tiny little electrodes deep into their brains so they could hear the individual neurons.

 

PATRICK PURDON: So let's imagine that we zoom in to, like, tens to hundreds of neurons firing. And ...

 

TIM: He says when they give that patient propofol in anesthetic ...

 

[MUSIC OUT]

 

PATRICK PURDON: What we notice is that, right at the point of loss of consciousness ...

 

TIM: Sure enough, they see those big slow waves sweeping through. And just like in Fenway when the wave hits you, you have to stop your conversation. But what that wave is really doing is it's only allowing each little cluster of neurons to talk once in a while.

 

PATRICK PURDON: They can only fire at a particular moment in this slow oscillation.

 

TIM: Like, you know how the wave goes up and down and up and down, or round and round and round if you're in Fenway. It's only at this moment say, that one group gets to talk. The problem is his buddy, he can only talk at this moment. And the neurons next door, they can only talk at this moment. The next group, same deal. Everybody gets a turn to talk, but they can't talk to each other because they're on slightly different schedules. When they're talking, the others can't listen. So there's still a lot of talking going on, but consciousness seems to be the brain talking and listening to itself. So when that slow wave rolls around ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: The neurons can't all fire the same time and talk to one another. And in that state, it would be impossible to be conscious.

 

TIM: Is it -- it might be early to say, but it does it feel kind of like you cracked the code?

 

PATRICK PURDON: Well, I think we are in the process of cracking the code for anesthesia. You don't ever want to get, you know, too far out on a limb. But honestly, I mean I feel if we can educate people about these rhythms, you know, I'd be willing to say it. Sure, I think we have. I mean, I think this is going to be huge. I'm not going to lie to you. I think this is just going to be absolutely huge. Yeah, I'll take the bait on that, sure.

 

JAD: Crack the code? Really? That's -- that's a little bold.

 

TIM: Well, what it means to Patrick is that it in very practical terms, he can now peek into that black box of the brain.

 

EMERY BROWN: Okay, here I am. I'm wearing my scrubs.

 

TIM: For example, Patrick and his colleague Emery Brown ...

 

EMERY BROWN: I'm an anesthesiologist here at Mass General.

 

TIM: They let me watch a couple surgeries. And I met a woman named Doris.

 

TIM: Good morning.

 

DORIS: Morning.

 

TIM: What kind of surgery are you having today?

 

DORIS: I only have the repairing of the hair nails.

 

TIM: It's a surgery that, you know, 170 years ago would have been unthinkable. But here she is.

 

DORIS: I feel comfortable.

 

TIM: Not too worried.

 

PATRICK PURDON: So they're about to give her the first anesthetic.

 

TIM: First anesthetic? Propofol?

 

PATRICK PURDON: That's right. Yep.

 

TIM: And as she starts to go under ...

 

EMERY BROWN: Deep breath Doris. In and out. Don't stop, Doris.

 

PATRICK PURDON: So I'm going to just switch over the spectrogram display and see what it shows us.

 

EMERY BROWN: Deep breath, Doris.

 

TIM: On one of these monitors ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: Oh, look at that. Did you see that change?

 

TIM: Yeah.

 

TIM: It's a color display. You can actually see it happen.

 

PATRICK PURDON: You can see the slow waves, right? Now -- now she's got some slow oscillation.

 

TIM: If you imagine the screen as, like, this field of blues and yellows and greens, suddenly these bands of red just extend right along the bottom. And considering that for the last 160 years, anytime somebody like Doris has been put on a table and cut open, the doctors basically couldn't be sure what was going on in their head. Are they awake? Are they okay? And so with that in mind, being there in the operating room and seeing that band of red appear on the screen and hearing Emery Brown declare without hesitation ...

 

EMERY BROWN: This patient is unconscious.

 

TIM: It's kind of cool.

 

TIM: And you say that with what percent confidence?

 

EMERY BROWN: Oh, 99.999999999.

 

[FINGERS SNAP]

 

TIM: And then I was in another room. Where did they all go?

 

CARL ZIMMER: Hi, this is Carl Zimmer.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Hello, this is Patrick Purdon calling from the Massachusetts General Hospital.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation ...

 

PATRICK PURDON: And the Alfred P Sloan Foundation.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

 

PATRICK PURDON: More information about Sloan ...

 

CARL ZIMMER: ... at www.sloan.org.

 

PATRICK PURDON: Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Thanks a lot, guys, bye-bye.

 

CARL ZIMMER: Take it easy.

 

ANSWERING MACHINE: End of message.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

TIM: Okay, I'll do that. Okay, let me do it one more time. Three, two, one. This is Tim Howard, and today on Radiolab we've been talking about black boxes. And the next story started with a radio piece that I heard at the Third Coast International Audio Festival. There were a lot of incredible stories, but there was this one called Keep Them Guessing that I just loved and I couldn't get it out of my head. So I sat Jad and Robert down in our little black box of a studio.

 

JAD: Look Tim Howard, I'm not sure I like your tone, okay?

 

TIM: And I connected them with the guy who made the piece.

 

JAD: Hello? I hear the sound of what sounds like another room.

 

JESSE COX: Does it sound like me now?

 

JAD: Oh, there he is!

 

TIM: His name is Jesse Cox.

 

ROBERT: Wow, you sound so close, considering you're so far away.

 

TIM: He's actually in Australia.

 

ROBERT: Where everybody is, because they're upside down from the rest of us, they are very, very likely to fall into the sky.

 

JESSE COX: You have us Australians worked out down to a tee, Robert. I'm gripping on with my hands to the table as we speak.

 

ROBERT: Oh, good!

 

JAD: Okay just to start, I mean maybe just introduce us to your grandparents. Who are they?

 

JESSE COX: Well, my grandparents were mind readers. On the radio.

 

JAD: Really? You're going to have to explain that. What are their -- what are their names first?

 

JESSE COX: Lesley -- Lesley Piddington and Sydney Piddington.

 

ROBERT: Piddington?

 

JESSE COX: Piddington.

 

ROBERT: And they had a -- they had a radio show?

 

JESSE COX: Yeah, the show was called The Piddingtons, or The Amazing Piddingtons. And it was on the BBC Radio in the 1950s.

 

ROBERT: Oh!

 

TIM: Now, Jesse told us that for most of his life he didn't know this.

 

JESSE COX: I guess the reason was that my grandfather and my grandma divorced well before I was born.

 

TIM: And then his grandpa ...

 

JESSE COX: He died when I was four or five.

 

TIM: And then his grandma remarried. So nobody talked about it, crazily enough.

 

JESSE COX: I knew that my grandparents had been famous and my grandma was an actress, but it really wasn't until I was a teenager and a radio producer actually discovered by accident that my grandma was alive. I went, "What?" There's still a Piddington alive?

 

TIM: The reporter calls up his grandma and is like, "Hey, can I interview you?"

 

JESSE COX: And my grandma was hesitant. She was like, "Oh, I'm not sure I'll be very good. I can try and remember." And they came and interviewed her. And when it went to air, when it got broadcast, we all drove up ...

 

TIM: ... to his grandma's house.

 

JESSE COX: And listened to it around the radio like they would have back in the 1950s, and heard the story.

 

TIM: And that's when Jesse discovered that his grandparents, Lesley and Sydney Piddington, one time had an audience of 20 million people.

 

JESSE COX: Yeah, yeah. Basically, the population of Australia was listening to my grandparents back in the 1950s.

 

JAD: No way!

 

JESSE COX: So I was like, "Yeah, why don't I know this? This is in my family, and why -- why don't I know it?"

 

TIM: But he says it was really when he sat down and listened to the original broadcasts, or what's left of them ...

 

JESSE COX: Two hours of old BBC recordings that survive today, because my grandparents pirated them from the BBC back in 1950.

 

TIM: He says it wasn't until he heard those tapes ...

 

JESSE COX: ... that I went, "Wow!"

 

ROBERT: You should now tell us this story. Tell us what you heard that made you go, "Wow!"

 

JESSE COX: Well ...

 

[MUSIC IN]

 

JESSE COX: ... you hear this very dramatic theme song. And this old BBC voice comes onto the tape and says ...

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We present The Piddingtons.

 

JESSE COX: And the music goes up. All very, very dramatic. And then the narrator sets the scene for you.

 

[MUSIC OUT]

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Good evening to you all, both at home and here in the Number One Picadilly studio right in the middle of the West End of London.

 

JESSE COX: It was done in front of a live audience. And -- and then you hear my grandfather's voice.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: Well as Stephen Grenfell has just told you, life's been quite exciting for us.

 

JESSE COX: He was a stutterer.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: We -- we have had a lot -- lot more letters.

 

JESSE COX: All these things that meant it should never have worked on radio.

 

TIM: Anyhow ...

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: Anyhow, tonight ...

 

JESSE COX: My grandfather is in the studio on the stage ...

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: ... and ...

 

JESSE COX: ... and my grandma ...

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: I'm sorry to say Lesley isn't here.

 

JESSE COX: She was often somewhere dramatic.

 

TIM: As in not in the studio.

 

JESSE COX: Somewhere exotic. One time she was in a diving bell.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: A diving bell.

 

JESSE COX: She was underwater.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: At the bottom of a test tank.

 

ROBERT: Whoa!

 

JESSE COX: One time, she was in the Tower of London.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Are you there Lesley in the tower?

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Yes, I'm here.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: And remember Piddington is here in the Piccadilly studio, and Lesley is in the Tower of London.

 

JAD: So your grandpa is onstage and your grandma you're saying is in a tower by phone? Or ...

 

JESSE COX: No. She's in front of -- she's in front of a microphone. Now this is back in the time when microphones were the size of small melons.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: We'll hear from them very shortly.

 

JESSE COX: There would be a microphone set up in the Tower of London.

 

JAD: Connected live?

 

JESSE COX: Yeah. My grandfather then comes on the air, and sets up a series of telepathy tests that they're going to enact.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: And now down to work. I will attempt to transmit to Lesley a line of print selected from a number of books on the table here in the studio.

 

JESSE COX: So there was a famous one called the book test. And this is where a member of the audience would come up to the stage and there'd be a pile of books. And they'd randomly pick up a book, randomly open to a page, and point to a line.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: Would you read out the line to the listening audience?

 

CLIP AUDIENCE MEMBER: The line selected is, "The abandoned, as the electrician said, that they would have no current."

 

JESSE COX: Completely random bit of text selected out of a stack of books.

 

TIM: After the texts had been chosen, and only then ...

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: I shall now call in the Tower of London.

 

TIM: They would connect to his grandma Lesley.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: In just a moment, at the sound of the gong, I want your complete silence, your sympathy and your cooperation. Now concentrate on the line while I attempt to transmit it to Lesley.

 

[GONG SOUND]

 

JESSE COX: And a gong would sound, and he'd kind of very dramatically furrow his brow. And the next thing you heard was ...

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Men ...

 

JESSE COX: My grandmother.

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Men -- light ...

 

JESSE COX: This sort of frail, gentle voice. And she'd start to unpick what was being transmitted to her.

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Something to do -- an electrician! Something about light and electricians.

 

JAD: Remember, that line again was?

 

CLIP AUDIENCE MEMBER: The abandoned, as the electrician said, that they would have no current.

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Will you concentrate on the word that's like being left. People being left.

 

JESSE COX: It's amazing to listen to. Over 60 years later, listening to those tapes, I'm still on the edge of my seat.

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Abandoned -- that -- not light. Concentrate on the word like "light."

 

JESSE COX: And right at the end ...

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: I think the whole line is, "Abandoned, as the electricians said, there would not be current."

 

CLIP AUDIENCE MEMBER: The abandoned, as the electrician said, that they would have no current.

 

[AUDIENCE APPLAUDS]

 

JESSE COX: Almost every time it would be a hundred percent correct.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Truly remarkable broadcast.

 

JESSE COX: It just was this feeling inside you that you get going, "Hang on, what?"

 

JAD: When Jesse heard those broadcasts, his obvious question was, "How did they do that?"

 

JESSE COX: Well, this is the question that I have wanted to know for so long. And there have been many, many theories. I mean, they used to get letters in from listeners all the time. There's this box of press clippings we found at the bottom of my grandma's closet, and we started going through these press clippings. And there were wild theories, like little Morse code transmitters in their teeth.

 

ROBERT: [laughs]

 

JESSE COX: Yeah. I mean one of the theories I quite liked with someone who wrote in saying there was a green man that ran between their shoulders, and he knew this on authority because he also had a green man. And so that was precisely how they did it.

 

ROBERT: But you are totally convinced that this was a carefully worked-out trick of some kind.

 

JESSE COX: Yes. That is the one part of almost certainty I can say ...

 

ROBERT: I mean, there has to be some secret code, some tapping of the some -- something.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: Well, you're not the first person to say that. The people were constantly trying to guess what the code was.

 

JAD: That's Jim Steinmeyer.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: I'm an author and consultant to magicians.

 

JAD: He says that at the time, some magicians in London ...

 

JIM STEINMEYER: Thought that his stammer was part of the code.

 

CLIP SYDNEY PIDDINGTON: Uh -- it -- uh -- I can just think is ...

 

JAD: Jesse for his part, ended up going through a ton of these theories as he interviewed magicians and historians, read through magic books. Initially, one of the theories that made sense to him ...

 

JESSE COX: Is that the code was in the silence. That basically, my grandparents and my grandma were so in sync that between each time a sound or a word was uttered, they'd inside their head start going through the alphabet. And they'd be so in tune, so in sync, that whatever letter that matched up, that that would be a code.

 

ROBERT: Uh-huh.

 

JAD: Wait.

 

ROBERT: So Jad?

 

JAD: A, B, C ...

 

ROBERT: Hi!

 

JAD: D ...

 

ROBERT: Stop at C.

 

JAD: No, stop at C.

 

ROBERT: I'm wondering ...

 

JAD: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I ...

 

ROBERT: Oh, fuck. The next letter is going to be J. [laughs]

 

JESSE COX: Yeah, of course. Of course. As soon as you start playing any of these theories out on real time, you realize how ridiculous they are.

 

JAD: And if you listen to the second broadcast of the two that's revived, you hear something that makes the whole idea of a code seem kind of impossible.

 

JESSE COX: Yeah. That was a test they did on the airplane broadcast.

 

JAD: In that broadcast, his grandma ...

 

JESSE COX: She was in an aeroplane.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Flying at a great height at a great speed towards somewhere or other, but we're not sure where.

 

JESSE COX: Flying around Bristol.

 

JAD: And she was in this plane at the same moment that he was on stage.

 

JESSE COX: [laughs] Exactly. And on that time, there were numbered envelopes on everyone's seats. And my grandfather said, "Okay, everyone write something and put it in the envelope. Seal it up."

 

JAD: Just write a poem off the top of your head?

 

JESSE COX: 150 people do this, and then Syd turns to one of the judges and says, "Okay, pick two numbers from one to 150." And then someone goes into the audience and goes and picks those two envelopes, brings them back to the stage, gives them to the judges. And then the judge picks one of the envelopes, pulls out the poem and then holds it in front of my grandfather.

 

JAD: And so here you have a poem chosen seemingly at random. And Lesley, the grandma, is several thousand feet in the air when they finally connect to her.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Bristol, come in will you?

 

CLIP TECHNICIAN: Hello?

 

JAD: Via shortwave relay.

 

CLIP TECHNICIAN: Lesley is still completely isolated.

 

JAD: She can't even hear a word that they're saying.

 

JESSE COX: She never had a pair of headphones, so she could never actually hear what was going on in the studio. She literally just spoke into a microphone once the technician said, "Lesley, we're ready for you."

 

CLIP TECHNICIAN: We're ready for you.

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: All right.

 

JAD: So thousands of feet below, Sydney is there furrowing his brow. And the poem he's trying to send her is from Keats. It's just one line that goes: Hail to thee blithe spirit. Bird thou never wert.

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: A bird. One bird. Oh, it's -- it's two lines. A bird -- spirit. Oh, I've got it. I can guess it. Hail to thee, blithe spirit. Bird thou never wert.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Miss Young, would you read out what is written down on the piece of paper that you hold?

 

CLIP MISS YOUNG: Hail to thee, blithe spirit. Bird thou never wert.

 

CLIP BBC ANNOUNCER: Thank you.

 

JAD: The crazy part is that in that trick, your grandpa doesn't even talk to her.

 

JESSE COX: There's complete silence between Syd and Lesley. And if there's silence, there can be no coding. So you know, it was kind of this -- this wonderful process of if I talked to people and even if they came up with theories, you'd listen to the tape and then realize that even the theories themselves just seemed so implausible.

 

JAD: Well, maybe it's the narrator. Do you think it's the narrator? That whatever it is the narrator says each night, which is before your -- before the game is even on, somehow encoded into that man's introduction, is -- is the -- is the answer?

 

ROBERT: No, because that -- because the audience hasn't yet gone and done its random act when he starts the show.

 

JAD: Oh, yeah.

 

JESSE COX: There was one thing that I discovered from reading the magic books. And this was this whole idea about passing on a piece of information through a third party. Now, my grandfather never speaks to my grandma, but he says to the technician in the studio, "Can you please call Gilbert Sullivan in the Stratocruiser and asked my wife to stand by?" Then the technician calls Gilbert and says, "Gilbert, can you please ask Lesley to stand by?" And then Gilbert Sullivan says to my grandma, "Lesley, please stand by."

 

ROBERT: Hmm.

 

JESSE COX: Now, that's is the only thing I can see where there's some kind of communication.

 

JAD: Wait ...

 

ROBERT: But how would "stand by" communicate something like a random sentence from a book or whatever?

 

JESSE COX: Exactly. And that's then essentially where the theory falls down, because then what happens next is that my grandma basically successfully recites a half-written crossword which someone has put into an envelope and passed up to my grandpa. So like, how "stand by" means -- means, you know, six down, I have no idea. So really, I'm back to square one again. I can't work it out. I've got, you know ...

 

ROBERT: You mean, to this day you don't know?

 

JESSE COX: To this day, I do not know.

 

JAD: Wait a second. Wait a sec, wait a sec.

 

ROBERT: No! It can't -- no, there's got to be somebody who knows. I can't believe we could go into this interview, we have no -- we have no ...

 

JAD: So it's the technician. It's got to be the technician. You got to get to the technician, because the technician is looking at her and he's doing something ...

 

ROBERT: Or the pilot. All they have to do is move their lips.

 

JAD: There -- something is happening with that man's eyebrows, and that's the code. It's the eyebrows.

 

JESSE COX: I feel like I'm just listening to this, like, what's been going on in my head for about 10, 12 years.

 

JAD: So then I asked Jesse, like, what happened when he talked to his grandma?

 

JESSE COX: Total dead end.

 

JAD: What do you mean, total dead end? You mean, like ...

 

JESSE COX: Growing up, around -- once we discovered this story, around the dinner table when we visited her we'd always be, "But, like, why don't you tell us? Why can't you tell us? We're family, surely you can tell us." And she would fob us off, and -- and just say, "You are the judge." That is the line that they finished -- that is the line they finished with every single broadcast.

 

CLIP TECHNICIAN: Anything to say?

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Only thanks very much everyone, and you're the judge.

 

CLIP TECHNICIAN: Well, I think we -- well, all right. I'm baffled. Now back to Sydney Piddington in Piccadilly.

 

JESSE COX: She won't even give me the satisfaction of saying, "Yes, it was a trick." She won't even say that.

 

ROBERT: Clearly, you aren't the favorite grandchild. There was probably another -- another -- you have a cousin or a sibling whom she really adored. And one day without your knowing it, she whispered the secret to her.

 

JESSE COX: No.

 

JAD: What about to her son? Your father? What did -- did she -- did she tell -- did she tell your dad?

 

JESSE COX: She told my dad something. And ...

 

JAD: What? What did she tell him?

 

JESSE COX: I have no idea. He will not even admit being told something.

 

JESSE COX'S FATHER: If she slipped up.

 

JAD: This is Jesse's dad.

 

JESSE COX'S FATHER: And I'm not even sure that she did slip up, but how to finish that sentence?

 

JESSE COX: And I have grilled my dad. I don't understand why you can't say, "Yes, Lesley did tell me something. I'm not going to tell you, but yes, she did actually tell me something."

 

JESSE COX'S FATHER: If my mom entrusted me with something all those years ago, then I will keep that trust.

 

JESSE COX: Why?

 

JESSE COX'S FATHER: Because I believe in keeping trust.

 

JESSE COX: My dad won't tell my mom. They've been together for over 30 years.

 

JESSE COX'S FATHER: You'll just have to continue knowing nothing.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: There's no book that's published. There's no one that came out and said, "I was the fellow who worked behind the scenes with the Piddingtons. Let me tell you how it was done."

 

JAD: That's Jim Steinmeyer again.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: They left people guessing and -- and walked away.

 

JESSE COX: The thing that got me was when I was talking to magicians, and they said, "We can repeat everything that they did."

 

JAD: Really? So they can actually do -- I mean, like, you know, one of them is in a plane and another one is on ...

 

JESSE COX: Apparently. But they still themselves don't know a hundred percent for sure how my grandparents did it.

 

JAD: If -- if we could figure this out, would you want -- it sounds like you would want to know the answer.

 

JESSE COX: I'm not so sure anymore.

 

JAD: Really?

 

JESSE COX: We all say we want to know, and we all go completely crazy and mad. But I feel like this story wouldn't have lasted for 60 years. It wouldn't still captivate people today if they'd told people, if they hadn't kept to their line, "You are the judge." I kind of feel like that's almost the greater magic than whatever magic they were doing.

 

JAD: No, I just feel like this is a black box that we can shine a light into it and go, "Okay. Check that one off the list. Now we can go to the other ones."

 

ROBERT: Well, this is the cool thing. Now, if we can't figure it out, then you will be very happy with our program. If we can figure it out, we will call you and say, "Do not listen to this show, because it will deeply disappoint you."

 

JESSE COX: Well, I mean the thing -- the thing I think for me that made me come to peace with not finding out and not knowing the answer, was that a lot of the interviews I did with my grandma were from a few years ago, and she actually isn't very well. She has dementia, and she's been sick the past couple of years. And so she physically can't tell it anymore. And yeah, for me there is something about, you know, I visit my grandma now and you go, "She was amazing." She -- not only did she make this incredible program with my grandfather that had 20 million people listen to them, which is just incredible when you think of the 1950s, they've managed to ...

 

JAD: What happened? Hey! No! No, Jesse! Come back! No!

 

ROBERT: Well, we just went straight on the hour. There was exactly -- it's exactly, like, nine seconds ago is the hour.

 

JAD: Mother [bleep]

 

TIM: ... his cellphone. I'm just gonna call him.

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

RADIO PRODUCER: Hello?

 

JAD: Hello!

 

RADIO PRODUCER: Yeah, hi. Your booking ran out just a minute ago.

 

ROBERT: Yes, we noticed.

 

JAD: Yeah, that ...

 

RADIO PRODUCER: Yeah, I think we're going to use the phone because that booth now needs to be used. Sorry.

 

JAD: So we called Jesse back, and while we didn't drag him back into the studio actually, we couldn't. He did send us this tape.

 

CLIP JESSE COX: Now, you've held onto this secret for so many -- so, so many years. Why haven't you wanted to reveal it to anybody?

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: I think the reason I haven't ever wanted to reveal the secret is because it's a wonderful mystery. And I like to think that after I've died people will still say, "How did they do it? Was it or wasn't it?" It just tickles me to think of that.

 

CLIP JESSE COX: A lot of secrets, magic secrets, they get passed down from generations and they get re-performed over and over again. I guess that very much becomes a part of that family. Now as a performer myself, if I wanted to bring back the Piddingtons, would you feel like you could hand down this magic trick to your -- to your grandson to -- to carry it on?

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: Of course, if I had a grandson who wanted to carry it on, I'd have enormous difficulty telling him how to. I don't think it'd be possible, because there's an awful lot that I wouldn't be able to tell him.

 

CLIP JESSE COX: What do you mean you wouldn't be able to tell that grandson?

 

CLIP LESLEY PIDDINGTON: It's hard to explain why I wouldn't be able to. It's just that I wouldn't be able to. That's all I can say about that.

 

JAD: Our sincere thanks to Jesse Cox for so graciously allowing us to air that story. And also thank you to ABC National Radio's 360 Documentaries who produced the story with him. It's called Keep Them Guessing, and we've linked to the original story on our website radiolab.org. So ...

 

ROBERT: You know, I don't think it's actually time for us to end this, because I didn't tell you this. We were so interested in trying to figure out how they did that trick, that -- that Soren and I, because we just wanted to find out, like, did somebody know how they did it? So we called this guy.

 

PENN JILLETTE: [laughs]

 

ROBERT: Who ruined everything. This is Penn Jillette, who you probably know from Penn & Teller. Famous for doing magic tricks and then telling you how they're done. Now, I don't really know what I was expecting when we called him. I guess I was thinking he would know what they did, but he wouldn't choose to tell us. I didn't know. But when we called him and we played him the story, as soon as he heard it he said ...

 

PENN JILLETTE: Oh, it's a book test, right? It's a book test. It's an envelope switch.

 

JAD: A what?

 

PENN JILLETTE: And there are, you know, three or four ways to do them.

 

JAD: What did he say?

 

ROBERT: He said basically, "I can tell you how they did it."

 

PENN JILLETTE: Yeah.

 

ROBERT: Or how they might have done it, but you are not going to like it.

 

PENN JILLETTE: There -- there you go. The only secret in magic -- there's only one, and that is that the secret must be ugly. You cannot have a beautiful secret.

 

ROBERT: A beautiful secret's the kind of thing that's short and sweet. Like, he folded the hat twice. Or ...

 

PENN JILLETTE: There's mirrors under that table.

 

ROBERT: When you hear it, it's like, "Oh! Of course, that's what they would do." And you love finding it out.

 

PENN JILLETTE: Then you will whisper it to the person next to you. So in magic, what you want is an idea that is not beautiful.

 

ROBERT: So what he told us is a magic trick that stays secret is one that's so boring to tell you don't want to tell it, and you don't even want to hear it.

 

PENN JILLETTE: If I have to say, "He's lying about this and there's gaffers tape over behind there, and they're -- they're not actually telling you the exact truth here," and -- and it gets so -- you don't get an a-ha. One of the strongest feelings you can get in life, one of the most rewarding feelings is the feeling of an a-ha, I finally understand. If you don't have a wonderful a-ha, people won't figure it out. So I'm -- I can tell you easily how they did that trick, but you will not get an a-ha.

 

ROBERT: Basically, he said the true answer to this one is gonna kill your joy.

 

PENN JILLETTE: Yeah, it's ugly.

 

JAD: So did he -- did he tell you what they did?

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

JAD: Well, what did he say?

 

ROBERT: Well, I'll tell you -- I'll tell you in just a second. He went into excruciating detail about how he thinks they did it.

 

PENN JILLETTE: Now a book test, we actually do one in our show.

 

ROBERT: But the more important thing, he was so right. Once we heard the explanation and the details and all, we were -- we were both like, "Oh, all right. Well, [bleep]."

 

ROBERT: This is like a kiss with a poisoned dart in it.

 

PENN JILLETTE: I love how much I bummed your shit.

 

ROBERT: As you can hear, he knew exactly what he was doing with us. And in a way, he's asking us a deeper and more philosophical question. "I've done this to you. Will you turn around and do it to your audience?"

 

PENN JILLETTE: All I've done to you, you know, because you get to edit, all I have done is put you in precisely the position I live my life in. You now have to make the exact same decisions that I make. And I will -- I will tell you, and this is just true, that I would have played this particular thing differently with almost any other show, you know? My move on the -- on the chessboard with another show would be to say, "You know, I do have several ideas as to how this could be done. But I think I'm -- I'm going to be like the grandmother and go to my grave with this."

 

ROBERT: Hmm.

 

PENN JILLETTE: You know? And I would have just given you that sound bite, which I just have.

 

ROBERT: Except that we have pivoted the entire piece called, "So?"

 

PENN JILLETTE: [laughs]

 

ROBERT: It's like all eyes -- all eyes have been directed to the next sentence. So that's a little difficult.

 

PENN JILLETTE: But I want to see how you solve a problem that I solve every day.

 

ROBERT: But we have, like, a higher call -- like, you're entertaining but we're entertaining with the caveat that we're supposed to be, like, telling the truth as best we understand it. So we have a slightly different set of gods on our Mount Olympus than you do, which makes it very confusing.

 

PENN JILLETTE: You don't really. You don't really, because I am not suggesting that you lie.

 

ROBERT: You're just going to have to tell your audience what you think they need to hear, and -- and that's where he left it. So in the days after the interview, we -- we just got into this debate about what we should do. We obviously have an obligation to you -- you listening -- to tell you what we know.

 

JAD: Yeah, that's the whole deal.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, we can't pretend that we don't know something that we now do know, even if it would make a much more beautiful story. So this leaves us in a conundrum, are we ...

 

JAD: Like yeah, are we entertainers or are we actually ...

 

ROBERT: Journalists.

 

JAD: Journalists, you know?

 

ROBERT: So here's where we ultimately came down. We have decided not to tell you how the Piddingtons did it. I mean, we're going to tell you, but we're not going to tell you here in this podcast, because we have now been soiled by this truth we learned off the record. And you, if you want to be soiled, sure. Come and soil yourself. You can go to this URL: radiolab.org/The UglyTruthDontClickThis.

 

JAD: radiolab.org/The UglyTruthDont -- no apostrophe ClickThis.

 

ROBERT: And we just leave it to you. You can go there or you can not.

 

PENN JILLETTE: All I have said to you is that it's a trick.

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

PENN JILLETTE: And you knew that. The fact that it wasn't the trick you wanted it to be [laughs]

 

ROBERT: You know, he did turn sweet at one moment. We were talking about the grandma.

 

ROBERT: The grandma tells the grandson in the conversation at the end, she is not sure she could explain to him ...

 

PENN JILLETTE: Yes.

 

ROBERT: How it works.

 

PENN JILLETTE: Well, that's beautiful. That is the most beautiful thing that happens in the whole thing, because I think she's telling the truth. She may not know how the trick was done.

 

ROBERT: And yet she was a party to it. She's the one ...

 

PENN JILLETTE: Yeah.

 

ROBERT: He says, you know, often times when you're doing tricks, somebody knows everything and the other person is, you know, in the dark.

 

JAD: Yeah, one of -- you mean, like one of the partners intentionally not knows what's happening?

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

PENN JILLETTE: There are -- there are tricks in the Penn and Teller show that I don't really know how they're done.

 

ROBERT: And it might have happened here. He may have decided that he would be the knowing one, she would be the innocent, and maybe therefore -- and this is just a hunch, but just possibly, everything she's saying to her grandchild, instead of being a kind of dodge or a little bit of a lie, maybe it was the whole truth.

 

MICHELLE: Aloha. This is Michelle from Honolulu. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org. Mahalo.

 

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today ...

 

ROBERT: Today we are doing our Black Box hour.

 

JAD: Yeah, and a black box is -- it's a thing. It's a box that something goes in, you can see what that is. Something comes out which is different, and you can see that.

 

ROBERT: But you do not know what's going on in the middle.

 

JAD: It's a mystery.

 

MOLLY WEBSTER: I love it. Is -- shall we go inside?

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Of course.

 

JAD: And our next and final Black Box comes from our producer Molly Webster, and it begins ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Into the butterfly rainforest, so that you can see the butterflies that are flying, in fact.

 

MOLLY: So a few days ago, I was in Gainesville, Florida, at the Florida Museum of Natural History where they have a rainforest.

 

MOLLY: It's what, about three stories tall?

 

MOLLY: It's, like, got a top that's all wrapped in a net, and then it was covered in butterflies.

 

MOLLY: Oh my gosh, there's so many!

 

MOLLY: Thousands.

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Yes, so this is a heliconius butterfly.

 

MOLLY: That's Andrei Sourakov.

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: I started looking at butterflies when I was six years old, and I have never grew up.

 

MOLLY: He was my guide.

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: And here under this leaf you can see an owl butterfly.

 

MOLLY: Wow! One wing is, like, the size of my palm.

 

MOLLY: So there were red ones.

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Black and yellow ones.

 

MOLLY: Blue ones.

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Zebra-striped ones.

 

MOLLY: Is that -- is that a monarch?

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Yes. Watch out. Don't step on this butterfly.

 

MOLLY: It was like a Dr. Seuss-ian land of butterflies, but I was there to look at the moment right before they become butterflies, which remains one of the most mysterious black boxes in nature. What I'm talking about is something called ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: The chrysalis.

 

JAD: The chrysalis.

 

MOLLY: Just to back up, at a certain point in all caterpillars' lives, after they've eaten a lot of leaves, they hit a certain weight ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: That is coded in their gene as their final weight.

 

MOLLY: Some hormones start pumping, some genetics turn on, and it starts growing a little shell. That's the chrysalis. And inside that chrysalis, as we know ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: A caterpillar becomes a butterfly or moth.

 

JAD: And this is a mystery?

 

MOLLY: What do you think happens inside the chrysalis?

 

JAD: I think that -- I actually have never thought about it, to be honest.

 

MUSEUM GUEST: I don't know. I don't -- I don't understand how it works.

 

MOLLY: Not many people have.

 

MOLLY: Are you, like, surprised that you actually don't know?

 

MUSEUM GUEST: Yeah, I'm surprised. I thought, like, I knew and I don't.

 

MOLLY: Those are folks I met at the museum.

 

JAD: Hey, hold up. Now that I've thought about it for a second, isn't it simply that the caterpillar is inside the shell, it sort of snuggles up, and then it grows a wing off of its right side and then off of its left side, and it just pops wings out?

 

MOLLY: No. That is actually what I thought, but that's not right at all.

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: So McGuire Center is located on three floors.

 

MOLLY: Because here's the thing ...

 

MOLLY: Oh, so now we're going into the bowels of the building.

 

MOLLY: When you take one of those little black boxes and you slice it open ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Shall we do it?

 

MOLLY: Yes.

 

MOLLY: Which Andrei was nice enough to do for me.

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Sorry.

 

MOLLY: Even though he loves these guys. He took a tiny little chrysalis ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Oh, it's about an inch long.

 

MOLLY: Which a caterpillar had just gotten into one day ago, and he slowly began to cut.

 

MOLLY: So we're taking our tweezer-like scissors ...

 

MOLLY: ... through the outer layer of the Chrysalis until ...

 

MOLLY: Ah! Oh!

 

JAD: What?

 

MOLLY: Oh, my gosh!

 

JAD: What?

 

MOLLY: No, it was like there was no caterpillar there.

 

JAD: What do you mean?

 

MOLLY: There was no head. There were no legs. There was no antenna, no spiky spine.

 

MOLLY: It's like a pale, white yellow. It's very liquidy.

 

JAD: What was there then?

 

MOLLY: Basically just goo.

 

MOLLY: Just like a runny, goopy goo. Looks like snot.

 

MOLLY: All he had to do is give it, like, a little squeeze and then just went ...

 

MOLLY: Oh! Oh! [laughs] It just -- boosh! -- exploded it. He exploded it!

 

MOLLY: I think he looked shocked, too.

 

JAD: Wait, I don't understand. Where did -- where did the caterpillar go?

 

MOLLY: It seems like once a caterpillar gets into its shell, it sort of just melts. Its head, legs ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: Antenna, abdomen ...

 

MOLLY: They all just dissolve. Muscles themselves just sort of, like, dissolve away into individual muscle cells. And some of the cells rupture and so their insides, the amino acids, the proteins, those all go floating out into space.

 

JAD: Wait, you're saying that the caterpillar just becomes like a soup of cells?

 

MOLLY: Yeah. And yet somehow ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: This soup will magically be transformed into a butterfly or moth.

 

JAD: Well, how does that happen?

 

MOLLY: That question -- that question is the big, fat, metaphysical, quasi-religious, semi-mystical, philosophical question that people have been asking forever.

 

MATTHEW COBB: Yeah. So one of the big arguments that was taking place ...

 

MOLLY: This is Matthew Cobb. He's a biologist and historian. And he says back in the 1600s, when naturalists saw that goo, they just thought, "Oh, well clearly what's happening is that ..."

 

MATTHEW COBB: ... the caterpillar ...

 

MOLLY: ... goes into the chrysalis ...

 

MATTHEW COBB: ... and then it actually dies.

 

MOLLY: Totally dies.

 

MATTHEW COBB: And out of its burial cloth is going to come the new life.

 

MOLLY: This beautiful and completely new creature.

 

PHILIP CLAYTON: Death, as it were, and then a kind of resurrection.

 

MOLLY: That's Philip Clayton. He's a philosopher from the Claremont School of Theology. And he says from the beginning, people thought about and wrote about metamorphosis ...

 

PHILIP CLAYTON: ... as a kind of spiritual ascent. It says somewhere in the New Testament, "Behold, the old has passed away. The new has surely come."

 

MOLLY: Basically, people saw the caterpillar as a symbol of our lowly earth-bound lazy bodies, right? And then the butterfly was sort of casting away all of that and it represented our soul up in heaven, sort of in its most perfect form. Never mind that butterflies actually like to eat ...

 

ANDREI SOURAKOV: ... feces and urine and other unappetizing substances.

 

MOLLY: According to Andrei.

 

MOLLY: Sounds tasty. Never mind that.

 

MOLLY: The metaphor is, like, inspiring at some level, right? Because you think "Oh, I've got all -- I'm going to just become more -- a more perfect version of myself," right?

 

JAD: Yeah, yeah.

 

MOLLY: But then the converse side of that is, you cut open a chrysalis and it looks like a whole bunch of goo, and you think that is a hell of a lot of change. So the thing is that this transformation, either of the butterfly or of my soul, seems so dramatic, so miraculous that it made some people think, like, jeez, if you're gonna go to heaven and the process transformed that much, is it even you up there?

 

PHILIP CLAYTON: It still has to be you that makes it to Heaven.

 

MOLLY: You can't change too much. Otherwise, like, someone else will be up there enjoying your afterlife.

 

PHILIP CLAYTON: So certain memories and elements of your identity have to continue. Just not all the elements.

 

MOLLY: Yeah, I'm -- I'm so intrigued by that, because I also think, like, what -- like, what -- when you undergo such a transformation, what -- what do they think carries through?

 

PHILIP CLAYTON: That's a really interesting question.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Cleaning out the poop and throwing away the -- the moldy leaves, you have a lot of time to think.

 

MOLLY: Which brings us to Martha Weiss.

 

MARTHA WEISS: I am an associate professor of biology at Georgetown University.

 

MOLLY: She got to thinking about this question in more concrete terms.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Okay, so ...

 

MOLLY: She did an experiment.

 

MARTHA WEISS: What we did was we took a big green caterpillar, and we did something that was not entirely nice.

 

MOLLY: She put them in a box, filled it with a nasty odor.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Mm-hmm.

 

MOLLY: And is the odor like an odor of a plant? Or ...

 

MARTHA WEISS: It's -- it's actually a plant-based odor, but it smells kind of like nail polish remover.

 

MOLLY: In any case, she gassed them with this nasty smell.

 

MARTHA WEISS: And then once they could smell the odor, then we gave them a zap.

 

MOLLY: Is that just like a zap? Just a zoop? A zap?

 

MARTHA WEISS: I think 10 seconds of zap.

 

MOLLY: 10 seconds.

 

MOLLY: And they did this over and over.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Odor. Zap. Odor. Zap. Odor.

 

MOLLY: Until eventually, most of these caterpillars learned to hate the smell. Every time they get a whiff, they head in the opposite direction.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Okay, so then we let them pupate.

 

MOLLY: Meaning the caterpillar changes into its shell and organs dissolve, muscles melt. You get this ...

 

MARTHA WEISS: Cataclysmic, catastrophic, chaotic.

 

MOLLY: Change.

 

MARTHA WEISS: And then ...

 

MOLLY: One month later ...

 

MARTHA WEISS: The moth emerges and now we're -- the drum roll. We're ready for the drum roll.

 

MOLLY: Okay. [makes drumroll sound]

 

MOLLY: They give the moths a whiff.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

MOLLY: And the moths hate the smell.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

MOLLY: I mean, normally moths don't care about the smell at all. It's like 50/50. But these moths hated it.

 

JAD: Somehow I'm confused. What does that mean?

 

MOLLY: That means a memory made it through the goo.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

MOLLY: And it came out the other side.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

MOLLY: What's your -- what's your feeling, like, coming out of this?

 

MARTHA WEISS: My feeling is wow! I think it's amazing that a caterpillar can have an experience, go into its chrysalis, five weeks pass. Emerge as a seemingly different organism, and that it still can recall experiences that happened to it when it was a caterpillar.

 

JAD: And how does that happen?

 

MARTHA WEISS: The answer to this question is we do not know.

 

MOLLY: But ...

 

MARTHA WEISS: But ...

 

MOLLY: Out there floating in that sea of goo is actually a tiny little speck of brain. Some of the brain is dissolved away, but there's this, like, microscopic fragment that has made it through. And Martha suspects that nestled into that fragment is this memory.

 

JAD: Oh, it's like a little -- boop! -- it's like a little beacon.

 

MOLLY: And it turns out there are others, too. There's a speck of gut, some nerves, some muscle. It's not as gooey as it seems.

 

JAD: God, it's like -- it's like -- I can't help wondering what does the butterfly know about its caterpillar life? Like, it knows this one tiny thing, but how much else? Does it know it crawled? That it had ...

 

MOLLY: There's no answer to that question. But Martha says that these types of questions, like, come up all the time. In fact, one of her colleagues ...

 

MARTHA WEISS: And I was talking to Doug the other day, and he said that he had gotten an email from a guy who was, I'm not exactly sure what flavor of Christian, but had -- but he had gone into the whole resurrection thing. And he felt like this was, you know, when he ascended that he wondered if he would then be able to remember his life on Earth.

 

MOLLY: Well, here's the answer.

 

JAD: What answer?

 

MOLLY: Well, the answer to the question about what carries through. The continuity question.

 

JAD: Oh, right. Yes.

 

MOLLY: A memory carries through.

 

JAD: Which is freaking cool, I got to say.

 

MOLLY: It is freaking cool. But there's a little more freaking cool.

 

JAD: All right.

 

MOLLY: And that is that there's actually a continuity, but it goes in the reverse direction.

 

JAD: What does that even mean?

 

MOLLY: Well, Matthew Cobb told me the story about this guy.

 

MATTHEW COBB: This 17th-century man who I never -- had never heard of. Jan -- his name's written Swammerdam, but is probably more pronounced Svamardam.

 

MOLLY: Svamardam.

 

MATTHEW COBB: Svamardam.

 

MOLLY: Svamardam. Okay.

 

MOLLY: That's Jan Swammerdam, a Dutch microscopist from the 1600s.

 

MATTHEW COBB: He was definitely the first to do some very clear dissections of the chrysalis.

 

MOLLY: And the caterpillar. And one day ...

 

MATTHEW COBB: In Paris, in front of this crowd of assembled worthies, bewigged and bestockinged.

 

MOLLY: He gets a fat white caterpillar ...

 

MATTHEW COBB: Gets the scalpel or a tiny little thin bit of glass, and he dissects it. He just opens it up at the back, along its back. A long line. And what he sees inside, or what he can show them is that, in fact, there are some of the structures of the future butterfly. Its wings, its antennae, and even its legs, that are actually already formed even before pupation takes place.

 

MOLLY: So you peel back the skin of a caterpillar, and beneath it you see the -- a new -- the new creature hidden?

 

MATTHEW COBB: Absolutely. There's no decay.

 

MOLLY: Oh, that's so bizarre! It's like -- it's like if you were to skin me and there's my 70-year-old self is inside of me or something.

 

JAD: Wait, and the wings also survived the goo?

 

MOLLY: Yeah. So it's like the caterpillar will actually start to grow little tiny adult parts that are super thin and transparent, and it just keeps them tightly rolled up and hidden up against the edges of the chrysalis, but they don't actually ever go through the goo.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

MOLLY: Or become the goo.

 

MATTHEW COBB: What he'd then shown was, you know what? This isn't about death. This isn't about decay. This is actually about transformation.

 

MOLLY: I don't know, it's kind of eerie. Like, it's not just what of me carries forward into the future. It's like what of my future self is in me right now?

 

JAD: Thanks to our producers this hour: Tim Howard, Molly Webster, Jesse Cox, and thanks to you guys for listening.

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

ANSWERING MACHINE: Start of message.

 

MATTHEW COX: Hi, this is Matthew Cox.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: This is Jim Steinmeyer.

 

MARTHA WEISS: This is Martha Weiss calling from Georgetown University.

 

MATTHEW COX: And here are the credits.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.

 

MATTHEW COX: Our staff includes Ellen Horne, Soren Wheeler.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Pat Walters.

 

MATTHEW COX: Pat Walters.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Tim Howard.

 

MATTHEW COX: Tim Howard.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Brenna Farrell.

 

MATTHEW COX: Brenna Farrell.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: Molly Webster.

 

MATTHEW COX: Molly Webster.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: Malissa O'Donnell.

 

MATTHEW COX: Malissa O'Donnell.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: Dylan Keefe.

 

MATTHEW COX: Dylan Keefe.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: Jamie York.

 

MATTHEW COX: Jamie York.

 

MARTHA WEISS: Lynn Levy and Andy Mills.

 

JIM STEINMEYER: With help from Kelsey Padgett, Arianne Wack and Damiano Marchetti. Special thanks to Joshua Lang, Claudia Taranto, David Britland.

 

MATTHEW COX: Lynn Riddiford, James K. Kaczynski, and everyone at Massachusetts General Hospital. Hope that was okay. Bye.

 

ANSWERING MACHINE: Goodbye.



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