Dec 5, 2017

Super Cool

When we started reporting a fantastic, surreal story about one very cold night, more than 70 years ago, in northern Russia, we had no idea we'd end up thinking about cosmology. Or dropping toy horses in test tubes of water. Or talking about bacteria. Or arguing, for a year. Walter Murch (aka, the Godfather of The Godfather), joined by a team of scientists, leads us on what felt like the magical mystery tour of super cool science.

Our supercooling demonstration (with a tiny horse):

 

For more video of our trip to the lab, check out:

Jad grows ice, with one finger (sorta)

A flash freezing, in high-def

And it turns out, our podcast has something to do with this pret-ty big physics discovery, about possibly one of the earliest supercooling events in the universe, moments after the Big Bang.

This piece was produced by Molly Webster and Matt Kielty with help from Amanda Aronczyk.  It originally aired in March of 2014.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.

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Robert Krulwich:

Wait, wait, you're lis- (laughs).

 

Speaker 2:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All right.

 

Speaker 2:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All right.

 

Robert Krulwich:

(clears throat).

 

Speaker 2:

You're-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Listening-

 

Speaker 2:

To radio lab, lab, lab.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Radio lab-

 

Speaker 2:

From-

 

Robert Krulwich:

WNYC.

 

Speaker 4:

C.

 

Speaker 2:

C?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

 

Speaker 2:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I am Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Radio Lab.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And what we're gonna do in this particular, uh, show, is we're gonna, um-

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is one of my favorites.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Favorite.

 

Robert Krulwich:

It should be, because you really, you certainly gave it your all.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Exactly. Um, I don't know. What, what do we say here? I mean-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well-

 

Jad Abumrad:

... this is like, this is a little bit of a tussle. We sorta wanted to bring it back, 'cause, you know, winter's approaching, things are kinda heavy right now. We could use a little lightness.

 

Robert Krulwich:

What... So, this begins with a very, very successful, uh, film editor with, uh... Well, you'll, you'll meet him in a moment, uh, comes to us with an idea, which Jad loves, I hate, and things go from there.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs) Perfect. Can you hear us now?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hello, hello? Hello, hello?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Starts with Walter, my hero.

 

Walter Murch:

Walter Murch. I'm a film editor and sound designer, and I've been working in film since the late 1960's.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Resume includes-

 

Soundbite:

I'm gonna make 'em an offer he can't refuse.

 

Robert Krulwich:

The Godfather?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Apocalypse Now.

 

Soundbite:

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Ton of other films.

 

Robert Krulwich:

The thing we're talking about-

 

Walter Murch:

Yeah.

 

Robert Krulwich:

... so you should know, is the-

 

Jad Abumrad:

One of the more spectacular stories I've ever heard.

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs) How did you bump into this?

 

Walter Murch:

Well, I was in Leon, in France.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Doin' a film.

 

Walter Murch:

Uh, Unbearable Likeness of Being.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is back in 1986.

 

Walter Murch:

I was supposed to be there for a week and it wound up I was there for a month, and I ran out of things to read, so I went down the street from the hotel, and there was a bookstore, and, um, I was interested and still am in cosmology, so I picked up a book by the, uh, Carl Sagan of France. A man named Hubert Reeves.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hubert.

 

Walter Murch:

Hubert.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Actually, he's French Canadian.

 

Robert Krulwich:

He translates this Carl Sagan.

 

Walter Murch:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Anyway. Murch ends up buying Reeves' book, goes back to the hotel, finds a cozy spot.

 

Walter Murch:

So, I was happily reading aways, and he was trying to explain with some difficulty, because it's a difficult topic, how did matter condense out of the sort of cork soup that we believe happened right after the big bang? And, uh, he tried various, uh, attempts scientifically, but then he said, "To give you a sense of, uh, the poetry of this moment, the best thing is the story that Malaparte tells."

 

Robert Krulwich:

Who is Malaparte?

 

Walter Murch:

Well, he was a journalist, a poet, a diplomat, soldier-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

 

Walter Murch:

... prisoner, film director-

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Walter Murch:

... and somebody who, uh-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Got around.

 

Walter Murch:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And speaking of getting around, in 1942, a Melanese news paper-

 

Walter Murch:

Corriere della Sera.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... sent Malaparte-

 

Walter Murch:

To report, um, on the eastern, northern fronts of the war.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Specifically the Russian, Finnish border.

 

Walter Murch:

And, he had a front row seat of the Siege of Leningrad, the agony of the Nazi bombardment of that city.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And it's from there that Malaparte tells his story.

 

Walter Murch:

So this one day, this was in the winter.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Malaparte was posted with a Finnish army who were fighting along with the Nazis, and they were perched just north of Leningrad.

 

Walter Murch:

On the shores of Lake Ladoga, which is this big lake, uh, abutting the city.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And on this day...

 

Walter Murch:

The Nazis bombarded the area around the lake. This started a forest fire. Everyone ran for cover.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Soldiers ran every which way, and in the middle of the forest, there were Soviet horses that were locked up in a stable.

 

Walter Murch:

And the horses panicked and broke out of the stables. Hundreds of 'em.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And they just started running.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Rushin' to get away from the fire.

 

Walter Murch:

Right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So you have hundreds of horses bolting through this flaming forest-

 

Walter Murch:

Heading towards the open space ahead, which was the lake.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And all at once, they burst out of the forest and go barreling into the lake, stampeding one on top of the other, as they all get deeper and deeper-

 

Walter Murch:

Up to their heads.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And it is at this moment when they enter the lake that according to the story, something very weird happens. In the blink of an eye-

 

Walter Murch:

The lake... Snaps them shut.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It just freezes.

 

Walter Murch:

Suddenly turns to ice-

 

Jad Abumrad:

With a bang. It goes from water to ice with this violent snap, and suddenly the horses are entombed. Malaparte writes that even the waves on the lake were gripped in midair and sort of suspended there.

 

Walter Murch:

Fade out.

 

Walter Murch:

The next morning, when Malaparte and the Fins woke up, they discovered the forest fire had burned itself out, and look at that! The lake has frozen solid overnight. And his Finnish friend said, "Yes, that sometimes happens." And then they look and see, what are those bumps, uh, on the ice over there? They go to investigate and they find themselves in this, uh, horrific sculpture garden of horses' heads sticking up out of this solid, marble-like floor of ice.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You said hundreds, so hundreds of horse heads-

 

Walter Murch:

Hundreds of horse heads.

 

Robert Krulwich:

These are... these are not gonna decay, right, 'cause it's freezing cold? So they'll, they're-

 

Walter Murch:

They s... Those horses stayed there all winter and, uh, Malaparte was there in that region of the world, uh, during that winter, and, uh, so often, he and the other soldiers would go and have a smoke, and they'd go into the sculpture garden and wander around looking at this miraculous, uh, thing.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So this image of the horses frozen in this lake.

 

Walter Murch:

This image, beautiful and strange and disturbing and, uh, profound in some way.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Made us wonder. Well, made me wonder, I should say-

 

Robert Krulwich:

I told you at the time-

 

Jad Abumrad:

I-

 

Robert Krulwich:

... don't trust this story, it's not-

 

Jad Abumrad:

And I-

 

Robert Krulwich:

... it's scientifically impossible-

 

Jad Abumrad:

And I-

 

Robert Krulwich:

... for a whole lake.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... keeping an open heart-

 

Robert Krulwich:

You, you thought-

 

Jad Abumrad:

... thought, "Could this possibly be true?" Could, could there be a grain, perhaps several grains, perhaps a lake's worth of grains of truth-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Your heart, though-

 

Jad Abumrad:

... to the story.

 

Robert Krulwich:

... just, your mind is, like, loos like a siv.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

Anyway, I... We've argued-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Truth be told-

 

Robert Krulwich:

... about this for a year.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, and you know what? We're gonna, we're gonna reconstruct that argument right now and take this uptown.

 

Speaker 2:

All right. All right. Let's do this.

 

Robert Krulwich:

To a real scientist.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Ugh, to a real scientist. Wait, and then, course of our argument, we ended up ended up going uptown to Rockefeller University to meet a couple people who know about ice, so, we're going to go play with some super cool ice. Among them, this fellow.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Um, I'm Alexander Petrov. I am the Raymond and Beverly Sackler [inaudible 00:07:04].

 

Robert Krulwich:

Do you... Have you ever wondered, "Who are Raymond and Beverly Sackler?

 

AlexanderPetrov:

They occasionally almost show up and I almost meet them, but I never have.

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

By the way, the Sackler family has recently come into a bit of controversy. We all know that now. We didn't at the time. In any case... Alex, who must be said is an amazing dude, graciously agreed to demonstrate that you can in fact create the conditions of that massive lake inside a tiny little test tude.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Okay, uh, could somebody hold this sort of in here-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah, yeah.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

... and I'll get the tube set up.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He reached inside his freezer, grabbed his trusty falcon-

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Yeah, this is called a falcon tube.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's just a plastic tube filled with water. Now, this is not normal water.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

This is the really nice water.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's very, very pure water. No minerals, no dust in there. It's, like, super distilled. And he says when you take water like that and you cool it down, you can get it far below its freezing point, and it won't freeze!... Unless, that is, you happen to have a horse.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

You have a tiny horse here?

 

Robert Krulwich:

We have a tiny horse.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

And we're gonna drop that into the falcon tube, and do that.

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

AlexanderPetrov:

That's gonna be awesome!

 

Jad Abumrad:

So he handed us the tube. I'm holding a little vile of super cold water. What, eh, Alex, what temperature do you think this is-

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Oh, minus 20.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... that I'm holding right? This is min... minus 20?

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Uh, C.

 

Jad Abumrad:

  1. Celsius.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wait, when does water freeze? A-At zero.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Zero.

 

Robert Krulwich:

So it's 20 degrees below freezing point and it's still water.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But not for long 'cause we unscrewed the cap. Are you p... are you filming? We held the little plastic horse over the tube.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Countdown, or something.

 

AlexanderPetrov:

Okay, on the count of three, [inaudible 00:08:33]. All right, three, two-

 

Jad Abumrad:

One.

 

Group:

Woo!

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh my God!

 

Group:

(yelling).

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh my God!

 

Group:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Point for Jad! Because the moment that little plastic horse hit the water, the water slammed into ice.

 

Speaker 2:

I get excited [inaudible 00:08:52] (laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Suddenly that little guy was trapped in an ice cube.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh my God, he's... the horse is frozen! That's amazing! (laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs). Please remember, the horse was plastic. No animals were harmed in this experiment.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is honestly breathtaking. Like, it happened so fast.

 

Virginia Walker:

Catastrophic ice formation, just like that.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Did you hear that C word, Robert? Say it again. Catastrophic.

 

Virginia Walker:

Catastrophic.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Virginia Walker.

 

Virginia Walker:

And I'm in the department of biology, Queens University.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Virginia was one of the many people that we called up to ask, like, what the hell? Like, why does this happen? Like, shouldn't this water just freeze gradually the way that most water does, you know at 32 degrees fahrenheit, or whatever?

 

Virginia Walker:

No! Actually, so you see, this is why we have to start at the beginning. As Julie Andrews says, a very good place to start, right?

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Speaker 2:

(laughs).

 

Virginia Walker:

All right. So, the only reason that water freezes normally at zero celsius and 32 fahrenheit is that there's something there that makes it freeze. We call that a nucleator.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Sound like a superhero.

 

Virginia Walker:

Yeah, all right, so it's a nucleator.

 

Jad Abumrad:

A nucleator is like a seed, right? Didn't know this, but it turns out water almost always needs a seed in order to grow ice.

 

Erin Pettit:

As it turns out, water by itself is not actually that good at remembering how to become ice.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That is Erin Pettit, she's a glaciologist.

 

Erin Pettit:

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And what she means is that when water cools down, the molecules start to slow their movement.

 

Erin Pettit:

They get a little bit closer together.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And at that point, they want to all hold hands and become ice-

 

Erin Pettit:

But the water molecules don't quite remember very well how they're supposed to be organized.

 

Jad Abumrad:

They're like, "Wait. Do you stand here and I stand here? How do we do this again?"

 

Erin Pettit:

They need to be shown what combination of angles work the best to create a nice, stable structure.

 

Jad Abumrad:

What they need is, say, a speck of dust. That's the nucleator. If you throw in some dust into otherwise pure water, now they have a guide.

 

Erin Pettit:

Because ice can start to mimic whatever the, the, the shape of the dust particle is.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But what happens is that the water molecules start to form a K around the dust particle, and that K shape is very similar to the shape they need to make ice. And suddenly they're like, "Oh, that's how we do it!" So, in a sense, the dust particle is reminding the water molecules how to freeze!

 

Erin Pettit:

Well, no, I don't think it... of it like that.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Virginia says it's actually, uh, not quite so gentle. Really, what's happening is the dust particle is forcing the water molecules into the right shape around it. It's like a, it's like a command.

 

Erin Pettit:

It's nothing about memory, it's, it's, it's a physical thing. They just get jammed in there.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wow, that's just like Julie Andrews, like a Nazi (laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Erin Pettit:

(laughs) So then these, these, these ice-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Now, let's start at the very beginning. It's, "Ah! [inaudible 00:11:40] beginning! Nah!"

 

Erin Pettit:

(laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

Everybody...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, so if, as we just learned, water needs a catalyst, a nucleator in order to freeze, doesn't this at least raise the possibility that that Finnish Russian lake had reached a super cold state? Along come these horses and they were the nucleators. Maybe they had dust on their hair, or whatever (music playing). I don't know. But whatever it was, it started a chain reaction. Ice spread outward from these horses, shot across the entire lake, and froze the whole damn thing at once.

 

Soundbite:

(music playing).

 

Robert Krulwich:

Now, if you'll excuse me for just a second because this is like a touretting, like, impulse I have (raspberry).

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Erin Pettit:

(laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

'Scuse me. Now we can continue.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hold your horses, there, Krulwich, but we're gonna take a break, uh, and we'll continue this meaningless tussle in just a moment.

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Alicia Bridges:

This is Alicia Bridges calling from Saskatoon in Saskatchewan. Radio Lab is supported in part 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.

 

Commercial:

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Jad Abumrad:

Okay, so Jad, Robert, Radio Lab. Before the break, we posited what I thought was an interesting theory. Robert not buyin' it.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

We'll get to your skepticism in a moment, but I wanna talk a little-

 

Robert Krulwich:

(sighs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

... bit more, uh, about nucleators for a second, because when we were talking with Virginia, she told us something kinda cool. Uh, we asked her, like, "What else, uh, nucleates ice? Like, we learned about dust, but what else can do it?"

 

Virginia Walker:

Okay, so the best nucleator is ice itself.

 

Jad Abumrad:

She said if a little bit of snow falls into some water, or a little bit of ice forms in the water organically, the water molecules will rush around that and bam.

 

Virginia Walker:

If you don't have ice, what is the second best thing to nucleate this ice? Happens to be bacteria.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hmm.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Turns out she says there are three different kinds of bacteria that can generate these special proteins.

 

Virginia Walker:

Big, honkin' protein.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That can instantly turn water into ice.

 

Robert Krulwich:

In fact, when we were reporting this story, a video started circulating on the internet that showed a scientist taking a bottle of water, squirting out a little bit of this bacteria in, and then the thing just shocked into ice.

 

Virginia Walker:

And, the cool thing is, these bacteria are actually plant pathogens.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Plant killers.

 

Virginia Walker:

So you've probably seen grass growing in your backyard or whatever, and it can be all covered with frost, but then, you know, the frost can melt and it's still green.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

 

Virginia Walker:

But, if those bacteria are present-

 

Jad Abumrad:

She says they'll spit out their proteins onto the plant, which generates these ice crystals.

 

Virginia Walker:

The ice crystals-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Then slice the plant open.

 

Virginia Walker:

And expose the inside of the plant, and the bacteria say, "Mmm! Yummy. Here's lunch," and they eat the, uh, eat the insides of the plant.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's a good strategy, but that's not the cool part. Virginia says she has also found these proteins in bacteria that don't kill plants.

 

Virginia Walker:

So that made me think-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Made her wonder why, like, why would they need to make ice? And that's when it occurred to her and a few other researchers, "Maybe it's about transportation."

 

Virginia Walker:

Exactly.

 

Robert Krulwich:

What?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well, think about it. These bacteria are just sittin' on these plants-

 

Virginia Walker:

And what happens is the wind comes along, blows up these little bacteria i-into the upper atmosphere.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Blows them literally up into the clouds.

 

Virginia Walker:

They're not particularly cold-hearty.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So now they have a situation. They do not want to be all the way out there.

 

Virginia Walker:

They gotta get back down to the earth, and un... And let's say hitch a ride on those horses that you keep talking about.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Virginia Walker:

They're so light, they might not come down to earth.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So what they do, she suspects, is they use the plant trick. They spit out these proteins into the cold, wet cloud, which galvanizes the water molecules around them to form... a snowflake around their body. So now they've got this little hovercraft that they can use to coast on down.

 

Virginia Walker:

If they make ice, they can get back down, and they can get back down in a different place and start a new colony of bacteria somewhere else. And so, but this way, they get dispersed around the whole earth.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Think about that the next time it's winter and it snows.

 

Virginia Walker:

Apparently, if you melt each snowflake, you'll find a little bacterium inside it.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You're saying all of them? All the snowflakes?

 

Virginia Walker:

I, I haven't looked at every single snowflake.

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs) Of cour...

 

Virginia Walker:

But, it makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

 

Jad Abumrad:

But that's ama... that's a very, very cool idea.

 

Virginia Walker:

Yeah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I suddenly like the bacteria movie a hell of a lot better than the horse movie.

 

Virginia Walker:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

So at least I've, I've, you know. And it, and, and it at least has a shot at being true.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, the horses. So, when we were reporting this story and talking to Erin Pettit and Virginia Walker and a bunch of other scientists, when we asked them, "Could an entire lake have flash frozen in an instant, trapping all those horses?" Uniformly the answer that we got was-

 

Erin Pettit:

No.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Did you hear her no there? Did you here the sound of it?

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

It seems somewhat, somewhat... Let me ask it to you a different way; would you say absolutely not?

 

Erin Pettit:

(laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

Uh, or is it just a kind of a gentle no?

 

Erin Pettit:

I'd say that's an absolutely not (laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay. Because, as Erin told us, when you're talkin' about freezing an entire lake, well you've got a lot of problems to consider. First-

 

Erin Pettit:

The process of freezing, actually is a source of heat itself.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Because, like, when water molecules form bonds to make ice, that's a lot of activity, and activity produces energy, and now that's gonna make things a little bit warmer. Not to mention the fact that horses are warm-blooded animals, so they also would slow down the process of freezing.

 

Erin Pettit:

Right.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Also, the water would never have been pure enough to super cool in the first place.

 

Erin Pettit:

Because there's, there's too many things in the lake that would provide that initial nucleation; plants, organisms, dirt-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Damn it.

 

Erin Pettit:

Did somebody actually see this? What is the actual evidence that-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Um...

 

Walter Murch:

No. Nobody saw any of this as it actually happened.

 

Jad Abumrad:

When we told Walter Murch what the scientists told us, in typical, um, Walter Murch fashion, he was icy calm. And he reminded us that he never told us it was true, that Malaparte often mixed fact and fiction, and that the real reason he was attracted to this story was because it offered a metaphor for cosmology.

 

Walter Murch:

Right. The beginning of the universe.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Really? I mean, we... I feel, excuse me, if a small bit of skepticism-

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

Now Walter thinks it's true for the universe?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Metaphor, metaphor.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I, even so-

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's a metaphor.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Even so-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Come on!

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well, what does he mean?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well, he-

 

Robert Krulwich:

What does he mean?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Here's what he means. And if you're a physicist listening right now, just turn off the radio (laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

(laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

So-

 

Robert Krulwich:

We're just talking among ourselves here.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Right. So you can think of it in one of two ways, right? The first is that idea of super cooling that we saw at Rockefeller, where under the right circumstances, water can cool down way below its freezing point, not freeze, and then all of a sudden...

 

Robert Krulwich:

Ah! Oh my God!

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh!

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh my God!

 

Jad Abumrad:

Then it can suddenly do that, which we saw at Rockefeller in the test tube. Now, according to Janna Levin-

 

Janna Levin:

Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Bard College, Columbia University.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The metaphor holds because that bizarr-o flash freezing phenomenon actually happened repeatedly, she says, in the moments after the big bang.

 

Janna Levin:

Yes. Super cooling is definitely something that happens in the early universe.

 

Jad Abumrad:

She says right when the universe got its start, it was still small like the size of a grapefruit. Inside that grapefruit it was extremely hot.

 

Janna Levin:

Back then, it was probably a million, trillion, trillion, trillion times hotter (laughs).

 

Robert Krulwich:

A million, trillion, trillion, trillion time-

 

Janna Levin:

Ten to the thirty times hotter.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But as the little grapefruit began to expand, the temperature started to drop, and it dropped and dropped to a point where the universe-

 

Janna Levin:

Should freeze.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So to speak. But it didn't, and it's waiting, and it's waiting to freeze, and you're like, "What's happening? Why aren't you freezing?" Then suddenly!

 

Robert Krulwich:

Pow!

 

Jad Abumrad:

(laughs) There it goes, phase change.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Right, so-

 

Jad Abumrad:

This happ-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Go ahead.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I don't know exactly what you're saying, but keep going.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All I'm saying is there's a lot of phase changes, some of them were super cool. Don't worry about it.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

There's another parallel which I think is actually even more interesting. Um, it has to do with those seeds we, we talked about. So, if you go back to the grapefruit...

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Inside, it's very, very hot. You've got this wash of energy, and this energy is uniform, right? It's all womh, the same thing, spread evenly, everywhere the same, but then as things cool, you begin to get these-

 

Janna Levin:

Tiny fluctuations.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Little variations in temperature and density.

 

Janna Levin:

Right, it's a little bit hotter and denser in one point-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Than another. We're talking about clumps. Like maybe over here there's a little bit more matter and heat than over there. And these are our seeds.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay, I don't think that you're describing seeds like I understand seeds. Seeds are little things-

 

Jad Abumrad:

I have a-

 

Robert Krulwich:

... little things that attract other stuff.

 

Jad Abumrad:

No, no, but these behave just like seeds. Because, as the universe cools down and expands and begins to add all these new forces, and all these new particles-

 

Janna Levin:

Gravity, electron, photons, atoms.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Those little bits of variation from the beginning are still there, and now they're growing bigger 'cause now we have gravity, right? So a little concentrations of stuff are now attracting more stuff, and then more stuff, and then more stuff, and as the universe expands, they expand until ultimately, those little blips have become these massive objects.

 

Janna Levin:

Amazingly, the largest structures that we know about in the universe have their seeds in these tiny fluctuations.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Does that mean when you go on a, on a Star Wars kinda voyage, so you're in your spaceship and you're going at some incredibly high speed, you're rushing through the universe, and you see huge clouds of gas with nurseries for stars, and you leave them and you go to a galaxy and then another galaxy. There's a galaxy over here, and a galaxy over there, and a galaxy over here. You're saying these massive structures, walls of galaxies, neighborhoods of stars [inaudible 00:22:30] are reflections of a very early moment when something went weeoow, weeoow, in the initial broil of stuff, like the-

 

Janna Levin:

These beautiful structures that you're describing are like the snowflakes around the little bit of dust.

 

Robert Krulwich:

So does that mean that the empty spaces that we see when we gaze at the current universe are actually filled with something that hasn't cooled yet, or that hasn't qu... or isn't visible to us, or is working under different rules?

 

Janna Levin:

Well, if I can hijack your question, I can say we might not have seen the last of the phase transitions. Our universe is absolutely continuing to cool.

 

Robert Krulwich:

(gasps).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Is it really?

 

Janna Levin:

Yeah. It's-

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's cooling down?

 

Janna Levin:

... it's very cold right now. We have this, uh, dark energy driving the universe to expand at an ever-accelerated rate, and it's conceivable that in the future, that energy will endure some phase transition, and it will go away, or, or decay to something else, and this new state of matter, it might do something different to the evolution of the universe.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh.

 

Janna Levin:

So we might have a phase transition in our future.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Huh. Suddenly I feel a little... Oh dear.

 

Soundbite:

(gibberish).

 

Robert Krulwich:

(gibberish).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hello.

 

Robert Krulwich:

We have many people to thank who helped us on this particular podcast.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Totally. Producers Matthew Kilty, Molly Webster-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oo!

 

Jad Abumrad:

Uh, also Amanda Aronczyk-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Aktish Batcha Fashur, and Maureen Goudo.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The super cool people at Rockefeller University.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Absolutely.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Uh, Jeanie Gabarino, Philip Kid, and of course, Alexander Petrov. Thanks also to Jeffer Sanstrom, Inger Herberg, Mark Martin, Martin Truffer, Mark Tuckerman.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And Jason Wexler, and sincere thanks to all the listeners from Facebook and Twitter who helped us translate Russian and Finnish books.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, and, uh, certainly last but not least, Walter Murch, for being my hero.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Chad loves you!

 

Jad Abumrad:

I love you! And more importantly, he released a book, translating Malaparte from, uh, Italian to English, uh, which is where we got the story of the, uh, of the horses falling in the lake. It's called The Bird that Swallowed Its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte.

 

Robert Krulwich:

All right. So that's, that's us saying-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, oh, oh, oh, wait. One more thing, one more thing. Go to our website, radiolab.org, and you can see videos we shot at Rockefeller of water turning into ice in a flash. Super cooling right in front of your eyes. It's amazing. Radiolab.org. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Thanks for listening.

 

Speaker 14:

This is Stephanie calling from Bushwick, Brooklyn. Radio Lab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keef is our director of sound design. Maria Matasar-Padilla is our managing director. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becka Brestler, Rachael Cusick, David Gabel, Bethel Habte, Tracy Hunt, Matt Kilty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwan, Latif Nasser, Melissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Amanda Aranchek, Sheema [inaudible 00:25:44], David Fukes, Nygard Fitally, Pheobe Wang, and Katie Ferguson. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.



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