Return Home

The Universe Knows My Name

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 - 03:26 PM

Crystal ball Crystal ball (Frogman!/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In this new short, we explore luck and fate, both good and bad, with an author and a cartoon character.

Questions of fate and free will come up all the time on Radiolab, whether we're telling a story or talking to a scientist. And in this short, we decided to take a playful approach to the subject. Paul Auster tells a couple good yarns (true ones) that make Jad and Robert wonder whether the universe is playing puppet master. Then Pat Walters and Lulu Miller talk to Michael Barrier (he's the guy you call if you have a big profound question about Looney Tunes). Along the way, they answer a question that has been bugging Lulu for a long, long time.




Paul Auster and Michael Barrier


More in:

Comments [57]

Stephen Treadwell

The main reason I think T&J's the most interesting cartoon I ever saw is that in 1975 they made a version of it where they're best friends. I don't think any other cartoon ever made has a version so unlike the 1st one.

Aug. 23 2014 06:52 AM
Stephen Treadwell

Road Runner cartoons have dull looking graphics.

Aug. 16 2014 06:57 AM
Stephen Rhodes Treadwell

Tom & Jerry's the most interesting cartoon ever made!

Apr. 27 2012 08:21 PM

My wife worked for a county in Minnesota. She needed to pull the mortgage paperwork file from the county mortgage files. The mortgage clerk escorted her and two other people to the mortgage file room - a large room filled with shelves and shelves of books filled with mortgage filings. The clerk selected a book of mortgage files from a shelf and opened it up to show the group how the mortgages were filed. The clerk opened to the EXACT mortgage file my wife needed!

Jun. 19 2011 04:46 PM
Aviram from Israel

While listening to this podcast, I found myself wondering how is it possible that they don't see they're making the same statistical mistakes which were very eloquently explained in the stochasticity episode.
I consider this resort to cosmic destiny mumbo-jumbo (life rhymes etc. come on...) to be quite disappointing, coming from a show with a clear scientific propensity.

Jun. 06 2011 11:30 AM

A glitch in the Matrix!!!

May. 24 2011 04:33 AM
Lyn from Massachusetts

I got a twofer:

I've seen one Monkees episode in my life. Twice. Once when it originally aired in the 60's and again about 30 years later. I was asleep on the sofa in front of the TV and woke up to see the episode where the Monkees are hypnotized by a big eye on the TV. At the end there's a beautiful song. It's Tim Buckley singing Song to the Siren. I had no idea it was from that era! I knew it from This Mortal Coil. A record I wore out, I was obsessed with. It is haunting.

In the 80's I had a friend and we'd hang out at his place. Flash forward 15 years, I go to a party at the exact same apartment. Two completely different sets of people unknown to one another in a big city with lots and lots of apartments...

May. 10 2011 02:52 PM
Gene Schwanke from Southold, NY

We adopted a Korean boy at 5years old who spoke no English. The first American boy he met was our neighbor's son. They became great friends. The coincidence is that we later discovered that they were born on the same day in 1996!

May. 01 2011 10:32 AM
mara from Dallas

Was anyone else really disappointed that we didn't get to hear what the "case" was that Mr. Quinn took for the "Pinkertons"?

Apr. 25 2011 08:55 PM
Stephen Rhodes Treadwell

It says above Road Runner's more interesting than Tom & Jerry. I disagree! I find T&J much more interesting. RR's not very interesting at all. It's so repetitive & predictable. T&J's very interesting because of the way they team up w/ each other sometimes & the fact that Tom sometimes defeats Jerry.

Apr. 03 2011 04:21 AM
Lindsay from Washington, D.C.

There is a difference between the well known phenomenon of saliency and what the folks at Radiolab are talking about. I think the apparent dilemma can be found in the way we talk about the thing Jad and Robert refer to it as "fate", "destiny" or a "script", which implies that it's already been decided. The implications are distasteful because they preclude free will. The other extreme, that everything is totally random, and, therefore, does not matter is equally distasteful. Of course, the truth lies in the middle - there is a script, of sorts, but since we're all participants, it's more of a "choose your own adventure" type of script. If you're willing to go along with the premise, some pretty weird and wonderful things begin to happen - things that cannot be explained away by saliency.

Feb. 14 2011 08:24 PM
Bill from Silicon Valley, California

If there's one thing Roadrunner and Coyote ever taught me as a child, it's that you can never trust rocket backpacks from The Acme Corporation!

Feb. 14 2011 04:07 PM

I am a bit disappointed by the broadcast "The Universe Knows My Name"
My issue concerns the 'Roadrunner" segment. A Critical point was glossed over re. the coyote following the RR through the painted scenery. When the coyote realized his error was when he saw the RR flapping his wings to stay afloat...RR is a bird; coyotes, however are landlubbers'
Not allowing the audience 'savvy' to the "duh!" factor involved highlights the point they wish to make but, excludes the point they would Have to make if it were includded. Namely The Best Laid Plans...etc.

Feb. 11 2011 08:23 PM
Kelly K from PA

My birthday is 8/23, and my sister's birthday is 8/21. Our childhood friends (brothers) who lived next door - same birthdays. We are both two years and two days apart.

Feb. 08 2011 12:49 AM
Jacob from Montreal

I'm a fan of Paul Auster, and I particularly liked hearing his stories in this episode. But no literary discussion of coincidences is complete without Milan Kundera. In Unbearable Lightness of Being, there's a coincidence that Beethoven (perhaps the same Beethoven? I can't remember) is playing at two important moments in a character's life. Kundera talks about how we shouldn't draw meaning from this. Lots of music plays in our life, and it's only when it happens accidentally to align that we even notice it. That is, it was the two important events that gave the Beethoven meaning, not the other way around.

Anyway, you Radiolab folks should check it out. It provides a nice counterpoint to Paul Auster.

Feb. 05 2011 11:50 AM
thefasteryougo from Miami

To Eric from Ottawa, Ontario: That version of Chloe is on the cd Chicken Skin Music by Ry Cooder. I love it, too.

Feb. 04 2011 06:26 PM
Ed from NYC

Many years ago, while in Graduate School, I was involved with a woman born on April 4th. During a break in the relationship I began seeing a woman, whose birthday it turned out was also April 4th. A few months later after I left school I got a job in an Art Gallery working closely with the owner. Her birthday? April 4th.

Feb. 04 2011 11:24 AM
Masha from Washington

A must-read on this topic: Anthony Powell's magnum opus. A Dance to the Music of Time.

Feb. 03 2011 05:57 PM

I never liked Road Runner cartoons until I read Chuck Jones's wonderful autobiography Chuck Amuck. The reason Road Runner cartoons are more interesting than, say, Tom and Jerry cartoons is that the animators decided to really let themselves loose and see what kind of crazy situations the Coyote could get into and how to craft these perfect chain reactions. The animators basically made Road Runner cartoons for their own amusement as much as anyone's, and that's why they're absurd and hilarious. It's not about any philosophical hoo-hah about what "we" see in the Coyote.

Jan. 31 2011 04:26 PM
gravitybob from Portland, Oregon

Oh my. Last week I needed to use the bathroom really really bad. And I was in a Target store. I found the restroom, pushed open the stall door, and there in front of me was a white ceramic sort of stool-like device, with a hole in the middle, and the hole was filled with water. I explored a little more and found a chrome handle attached to a valve. I pulled the handle . . . and had the most incredible flashback to my childhood. As the water flushed through the shiney white bowl, I suddenly remembered we had something exactly like this in the house I grew up in. It seemed impossible. It was 27 years and two thousand miles ago -- yet here it was now -- in front of me.

I now for some people, it's just a shiny white toilet in a Target store -- but at that moment, and even to this very day, it feels like destiny.


Jan. 28 2011 02:23 AM
Josh from Maldives


Jan. 25 2011 01:12 AM
Eric from Ottawa, Ontario

Off topic, but the song snippet that starts at about 9'45" is called Chloe - but for the life of me, I can't find who performs it (not Louis Armstrong). I have been looking for this for ages. Can anyone help?

Jan. 24 2011 03:19 PM

Like some others, I have a life rhyme. When I was in college, a roommate of mine was taking a course in music appreciation. His final project was to analyze a piece of classical music and write a four page essay on the piece. The piece he was assigned was Mozart's Horn Concerto in F-major. In those days, we had record players, so Karl played that piece over and over and over. Often, he would play one movement, over and over and over. It was finals week, so being a bit stressed out one day I yelled, "Get some headphones or I'm going to break that record into a million *&%@ pieces!". He did.

A year and a half later I graduated and was living in a new city. I met a woman who was 8 years older than I, we fell in love and she wanted to introduce me to her parents. Already a bit insecure about our age difference, I was further thrown into emotional turmoil when I found out that her father was a well-known and respected doctor from a wealthy and powerful family. We went to their beautiful brick home in the old-money Forest Hills neighborhood for dinner. Soon after arriving, her father said, "Why don't you and I go into the study to get to know each other better and leave the women to finish the cooking?". In the study, he walked to the big walnut bookshelves, turned his back to me and said, "Do you like classical music?". I told him yes, and as I did, he put the needle down on a record. "Do you recognize this piece?", he asked. I paused a moment and said, "That's Mozart's Horn Concerto in F-major". "Excellent!", he said, "We're going to get along just fine..."

Jan. 24 2011 02:42 PM

I agree with Alec. This is the opposite of science. I hope they are planning to follow up with a show explaining why so many people misunderstand (or choose to ignore) probability.

Jan. 23 2011 08:07 PM
Tony Sinclair

I found this one to be very disappointing. Have the folks at radiolab already forgotten the lessons they learned in the stochasticity episode? Or did they do this because they think it'll help with their ratings?

Guys, there really is no need to resort to mystical B.S. to explain coincidences. You should know better.

Jan. 23 2011 08:04 PM
Jacob Myers from Washington DC

This is very true, my life revolves around the number 13. I was born on the 13th, I joined the army on my birthday, was admitted to officers school on the 13th, and college on the 13th. My first unit was 2-13th, which is my birthday. My fiancé is also born on the 13th. This repeats my entire life.

Jan. 23 2011 12:45 PM
Feral Boy from Charlotte NC

About 15 years ago, my wife got up in the middle of the night, and broke her toe on the side of the bed. Within two weeks, I got up in the middle of the night, and broke my toe on the edge of the bedroom door.

Jan. 22 2011 04:14 PM
Feral Boy from Charlotte NC

About 15 years ago, my wife got up in the middle of the night, and broke her toe on the side of the bed. Within two weeks, I got up in the middle of the night, and broke my toe on the edge of the bedroom door.

Jan. 22 2011 04:01 PM
Alec from Seoul

What's with all the hocus pocus these days? I see the wishy washy influence of RK.

Talking about coincidences ("life rhymes" ugh) would have been a great time to interview a statistican or logician about conformation bias and the lottery fallacy. "The universe knows my name" is the new juju up the mountain.

Jan. 22 2011 02:23 AM
Joe from Wisconsin

When the man called asking for Quinn, Paul Auster should have responded, "No, this is the Pinkerton Agency."

Jan. 19 2011 07:54 PM

Listening to the "rhyming" events story from Paul Auster reminded me of something that happened to me around 5 years. Not sure it could be categorized as one of those events, but thought I'd share it anyways: back in March of 2006, I wanted to create a blog, mostly to post my photographic work. I have always liked the number 339, which was the address number of the house where I grew up. I remember my father using it as combination on any of his locks, and I have continued to do the same. Wondering what to call my blog, I decided on "page339". A few minutes after giving my blog the address, my eyes fell on a very chunky (I believe Oxford) dictionary that had been sitting next to me. I though, "Hm... I wonder what the first word on page339 is... perhaps I should call my blog that word instead." I opened the dictionary to that page, and the word at the top of page 339 was COINCIDENCE.

Jan. 19 2011 02:31 PM

One of my own most recent life-rhymes involves Robert Krulwich, actually.

My mother, while she was alive, liked Good Morning America, and one time, when I was a young lad, we were watching a science segment being presented by a particularly lucid man.

My mom commented, "I really like this guy."

I asked Mom, why because she was a very opinionated and, at times, judgmental person, and if she ever made it a point to admit that she liked someone, it meant something.

"Because he as such a pleasant and clear way of explaining difficult subjects."

I never learned his name, but I never forgot his voice, or his face.

Many many years later, as I was working on a podcast of my own that was trying to explain a difficult subject, I thought: "I wonder how that GMA science correspondent would explain this?"

But I had no clue what his name was, and so my attempts to find out who he was were met with nothing.

Less than one week after this, I was introduced to Radio Lab via a This American Life podcast.

As Robert was talking, I began to recognize his voice, and when I looked him up on the web and saw a picture, I recognized his face.

I had found my mom's favorite science reporter.

And the universe, knowing my name, was the biggest help of all.

Jan. 18 2011 04:02 PM
erica from boston

it takes a lot of time and money to make a podcast as high in quality and well-researched as radiolab. yes, we all want more full-length episodes that intrigue and educate, but it's not like we're paying for it out of anything but donations. i'm just happy i have something as special as this podcast (repeated material or not) to enhance my days.

Jan. 18 2011 01:43 PM
Victor from DC

Yes, I've noticed several "new" radiolab podcasts that have repeated excerpts. Having problems coming up with original material?

Also, this is a small but I have heard that it also bothersome other people. Jad, stop starting sentences with the word "So." It comes off as an arrogant "you've interrupted me and I am going to go back to my important discussion like you aren't a part of it" way. It's such a yuppie, Starbuck's cruisin', latte drinkin', Ipad ownin', bohemian frontin' way to talk. ;-)

Jan. 18 2011 11:56 AM

I checked up on one of the complaints about this episode, in which it was stated that this short was just a rerun of a previous long episode. What I found was that the first 4 minutes and 5 second introduction of the episode on "fate" was used as an introduction in this short. The rest of that season 8 episode 5 is entirely different from this short. So here's a question for you: If 4 minutes and 5 seconds is the same, between an hour-long episode and a 16-minute short....What percentage rerun is that? Hey wait a minute! Maybe it was destined that Paul Auster's segment would be repeated, or...rhymed! Since he is the specialist in repeated or rhymed events. Which means the re-use of the Auster material about rhymed events makes this short self-referencing. Whoa! I wonder if Robert and Jad knew that?! If they did, then not only were then not being stingy in reusing material, they were actually being very clever! By the way, J.S. Bach reused material all the time, and so did other composers and as Igor Stravinski said, "Vivaldi didn't write 500 concertos, he wrote the same concerto 500 times!" Personally, a little re-use of material doesn't bother me. Especially when it's good. J & R are in good company. Now....if Jad and Robert wanted to get really fate-minded they could have an episode called "The Well-Tempered Paul Auster's Fugue for Klavier with missing F key." Whoa!

Maybe this is another thing about "fate:" It only takes 3 sentences to make an unfounded criticism, but a lot more to refute it.

Jan. 18 2011 01:39 AM
Dan Mulligan

What's a Gnu? !

What's a Gnu? !!!

OK, I'll bite.

What's a Gnu with you.

Jan. 17 2011 10:32 PM

I am a bit confused. It has happened more than once that it will claim it is a new episode, and just be a rerun. Also, the "Fate" episode in season 8 on the episodes page is the same as this "The Universe Knows my Name".

This is not new.

Jan. 17 2011 01:24 PM
JJT from NY

What follows here is my longest comment post on the Internets. My apologies to those who read it.

When I listened to the "The Universe Knows My Name" podcast this morning, I couldn't help think about my own best life-rhyming experience that, oddly enough, includes Paul Auster.

One day back in the early 1990s the god of mass mailing lists somehow decided that I should receive an offer to try out a subscription to the magazine Granta, which I had never heard. It seemed interesting and the first issue I received was Granta 44: The Last Place on Earth which included Auster's The Red Notebook.

I had not heard of Paul Auster either, but as a coincidentophile I was absorbed by his stories in that piece and was reading it in small bites to prolong the delicacy.

Also at this time I had abandoned engineering for literature and began taking Irish literature courses at Queens College in New York. During my required readings I soon realized that I was light in the Irish history department and prior to our class one morning I asked the Irish Studies professor if she could recommend a good book to shore me up. She recommended a fairly new history book to check out.

While waiting for the class to then begin, some idle chatter between she and several of us resulted in her also recommending a book that a friend of hers (if I'm not mistaken) had just published - Siri Hustvedt's The Blindfold: A Novel. Another writer that I was not familiar with.

Cutting to the chase, the next night I headed over to a then-new Barnes & Noble superstore near my home (about 30 miles from the college) to find the history book. As I passed the periodicals at the front of the store I noted the copies of Granta 44 stacked neatly, then headed over to find the history section in the huge warehouse of a building. When I had finally found the section and pulled the Irish history book in question, I peered down and saw another book balanced perilously on the shelf below it - Hustvedt's The Blindfold.

(It is important to note that the fiction section in these stores were at opposite ends of the building.)

Not letting a good coincidence pass me by I left the history book and purchased The Blindfold, which sat on my shelf for a few weeks while I finished other things. Eventually I finished Auster's The Red Notebook (which wasn't too long after all) and began The Blindfold. I read the author's short bio before proceeding - ending in "She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster."

Jan. 17 2011 10:52 AM
30jimbo30 from eastern Long Island NY

I was driving cross country (NY to LA) one day, alone, and it was morning, I'd just gotten on the interstate in central Pennsylvania, heading west, sunny day, no traffic in sight. The radio station started playing Van Halen's "Panama," and just then, I noticed a little sports car coming up from behind me in the left lane. As it passed, I noticed it's license plate was from Panama. Whoa! I won't ever forget that one.

Jan. 17 2011 09:21 AM

There's a LOT I could say about how humans develop their beliefs in "fate" etc., but the bottom line for me on this short is that it prompted a lot of thought, and if they couldn't come up with definitive answers....well this is a short. How much can you do in a short? But it was lots of fun the thoughts it provoked I think make it worthwhile. For me.

Begging your forgiveness for surpassing the word limit, here's something I think is relevant and needs to be said (just this once, and then I'll shut up):

I'm new to this comment page thing (this one specifically and in general--call me a "late adopter") so I don't know the traditions and the etiquette (if any). But I have to wonder: Am I the only one who gets irritated when somebody thinks everyone else here absolutely has to be informed about it when they're disappointed in a program?

Is there some consensus on what the social contract is here?..... What's the best way (for the community) for you to "show up?"

My own take on it: If I have something (e.g. enlightening or somehow additive) to share, or some heartfelt reaction that I can't hold back....go for it. If I have something relevant that I think people want to discuss.... bring it up. If I want to register my displeasure and try to influence RL or help it improve...there IS a "contact" button at the bottom of the page. Not everybody has to hear about my disappointment.

For me, general guidelines for myself (about showing up) are hard to develop or follow (being socially awkward I've had to work on this), and of course in the end, "to write or not" will always be a judgment call, and I'm sure it will always come down to being a judgment call for any individual here. What personal guidelines (or whatever) do others use? Anyone?

By the way, I suspect the RL team will never want to express much of a preference about what they want to hear about and what they don't, because the last thing they want to do is say anything that discourages feedback. That means it's left to each of us in the listening community, to moderate our personal "showing up" behavior. What do others here think? (besides that this was too long and pedantic).

Message to the RL folks: keep up the great work and don't worry if you can't please everybody.

Jan. 17 2011 03:30 AM

The description begins "In this new short..." What's new about it?

Jan. 17 2011 12:23 AM

No, the universe doesn't. People do. People are the universe so in that sense yes.

But whenever there is the question of fate it only serves to remind that people have no really model of a mind besides their own. That we are experiencing the world subjectively and think that somehow this experience is more special than anyone else.

It ain't.

Jan. 16 2011 11:20 PM
Currerbell from New Zealand

Thanks for your usually excellent programme, but I thought the Paul Auster section was weak. In her book about science, The Canon, by Natalie Angier, she has an interesting section on probabilities. Mathematically, we should experience a 'miracle' about once a month. Nothing more to it, I think.

Jan. 16 2011 09:24 AM

Attraction to chaos-that is the bane of my existence-I have been plagued with one melodrama after another my whole life-from birth! I've been plagued by the question of 'why?' I've thought kharma-past lives kharma-or vibrational polarity at some level that is a magnet for tragi-comedy. Who knows? But I
agree with Jad-ignore me universe!

Jan. 16 2011 03:19 AM
Matt M.

I kept expecting a mention of Animal Man #5 by Grant Morrison. It was a one shot issue called The Coyote Gospel. The coyote in the issue, clearly based on Wile E. Coyote but called Crafty, challenges the narrative the universe has created for him. After yet another violent death and rebirth he confronts the creator (the artist of the comic book), and is banished to the "real world" and it's here that the story really takes on Radiolab sized dimensions.

I'm a little surprised Grant Morrison's work (The Invisibles, The Filth, Flex Mentallo, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, All-Star Superman, etc.) hasn't come up on Radiolab. He certainly touches on similar topics.

Jan. 16 2011 02:21 AM

This is old! I got so excited to hear a new one. So disappointing!

Jan. 15 2011 10:39 AM
DrewHill from Norway

I enjoyed this episode. This is a topic I find intriguing, as I have had bizarre experiences where I felt the universe knew my name. A few years ago I was living in England working with an international volunteer organization. I took a small team of people to Tanzania for about 2 months. While there, one guy on the team got malaria. I accompanied him to the hospital where he had to stay for a few days. we were in a small room with two beds. as I was sitting on my bed across from him I noticed the bed sheet read, " Community Hospital Munster Indiana" I was in shock because that was the hospital I was born in... I was probably sitting on the bed sheet I had been born on...on the other side of the world. . . 20 some years later.

Jan. 15 2011 10:27 AM

I thought this was fun. Never seen “Wile E. Coyote” spelled before—so I did learn something! Oh my childhood discomforts! I'd watch Roadrunner between my fingers. Oh no! Ouch! I wanted to catch that pesky bird too—but I admired how fast he could run. Just like my faster friends. And Dad's reactions while HE watched it: “Oh gosh”. I can hear his chagrined chuckle. Re: the “woo-woo” content in this short--"Was this just coincidence?” When gazillions of events are always happening, some pairs among them will look amazingly like a plan. See how we humans interpret coincidence? A 16-minute short conjured/said all that! Pretty good.

Jan. 15 2011 03:44 AM
Paul from Michigan

Your prior show about stochasticity ably explains the means behind all of the seemingly unusual coincidences described in this short. No destiny is required.

Jan. 15 2011 12:10 AM

i've never liked the Roadrunner!

Jan. 14 2011 09:39 PM
Slope from OZ

You see I used to like radiolab because it talked a lot about science but it didn't have this "science vs. religion" stuff that plagues the internet, but since you took that survey you went on that path. And you don't have to stick to science so much I mean that podasct about Orson Wells and 'War of the Worlds' was extremely interesting as well.

Jan. 14 2011 04:40 PM
Jeff B from Paterson, New Jersey

Your Short brought to mind Ivan T. Sanderson, an author, crytozoologist and investigator of the unexplained, who frequently was a guest on the Barry Farber Show in the 1960’s on WOR Radio, out of New York City.

I recall that he used the term “clang” for a series of coincidences so jarring it seems to grossly violate the normal random workings of the universe. So that’s “clang” - as in a ringing bell – a kind of cosmic wake-up call.

Sanderson was real character with an eccentric background – his story could make an interesting subject for one of your programs.

Jan. 14 2011 12:39 PM

I found this to be one of your not as interesting podcasts. With a little more work it could have been a lot beter.

Jan. 14 2011 11:19 AM
Howard from Britain

Weak podcast, where were the insights? - I wish the shorts were the same great quality as the 1 hour episodes.

Jan. 14 2011 06:58 AM

Jad: just to let you know Wile E. Coyote does catch the Road Runner, but just once ( see the note just above the listing "Scenery").

Jan. 13 2011 07:47 PM
Rob from Canada

Is this a repeat of part of another podcast? I swear I've heard all this from you guys but i can't remember.

Jan. 13 2011 06:25 PM
clee14 from Michigan

This is something I've mentally deliberated for a while, in a totally fascinated and curious fashion; I feel as if there ought to be some sort of destiny, and I feel convicted that there indeed is no such thing as mere coincidence, but still I keep a healthy dose of skepticism in my back pocket. I still always find myself weighing between whether remarkable occurrences such as those recounted by Paul Auster are truly the universe rhyming and taking notice of us, or whether we just have especially heightened sensitivity to events that would be mundane to others, but that we perceive as being remarkable. Isn't there a term in psychology for that, like confirmation bias or something like that? Maybe though, there is a script. Maybe it's a mix of both. We'll probably never know.

Jan. 13 2011 05:48 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by