Return Home

Thrill of Discovery

Back to Episode

Erica Carmel was unimpressed in her physics class at MIT when a professor demonstrated that by swinging a bucket full of water around on a rope, he could invert the bucket above him without it dumping all over him. After all, she had made the same discovery when she was five, playing with her Easter egg basket.

When a scientist makes a discovery, is it their brilliant work, the product of a beautiful mind, or is it just out there in the world, waiting for whomever happens to get there first? For Alan Lightman, an author and theoretical physicist, this issue became a profoundly distressing quandary, one that ultimately made him leave science behind.

Discovery doesn't always come so easily. Geologist Rob Reves-Sohn spent a decade at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute planning an arctic expedition to one of the ocean's least accessible frontiers. Reporter Erica Lloyd hitched a ride on the ice breaker only to find out that the unknown frontiers don't give up their mysteries without a fight.

Paul Davies, physicist and director of The Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University takes on one of the greatest mysteries of all time as the basis of his work. What he wants to know is: Why are we here? It seems so improbable, the more we learn about it. But he theorizes that perhaps our conscious observation of the universe is a part of the grand scheme of the universe and its laws---that our inquiry is fundamental.

Read more:

Falling For Science, edited by Sherry Turkle, in which Erica Carmel's essay appears


Erica Carmel, Alan Lightman and Erica Lloyd

Comments [21]

john morgan from Los Angeles

Regarding Paul Davies insight that the Universe needs us to understand itself, the incomparable Alan Watts had this exact insight in his talk "Out of Your Mind II". here's the link...he starts with it and it goes about 3 minutes....

Sep. 18 2016 10:06 PM

Cam to listen to the section on Erica Carmel's Easter basket but it has been mistakenly or otherwise left on the cutting room floor. I heard it on the radio but this online edition skips her over.

Dec. 09 2013 10:27 AM
Kate from New York City

I appreciate your use of "whomever" -- however it is incorrect. It should be "whoever." It is the SUBJECT of the verb "to get there", not the OBJECT of the preposition "for." The PHRASE "whoever gets there first" is the object of the preposition. However, once again, I commend you for knowing that if it had been the object of the preposition, it would have been "whom" and not "who." The mistake you made is a very common one. I'm on a mission. Thanks for indulging my pedantry! PS- great show

Dec. 07 2013 10:28 PM

I had to laugh at Alan Lightman's thoughts on his discovery and its lack of uniqueness. Only are humans have such a huge ego, that we want to stand out from all the other ants in the ant colony. The importance of his discovery not being unique is pivotal in science! It means that the results are not flawed, and that they are indeed reproducible. That the scientist had not stumbled upon a flaw and made the mistake of publishing it as fact. Nature is not all that precise, as he says. It's a bunch of scattered data points that tend to pile in the same region of the graph, along a bunch of other wayward points which bafflingly end up elsewhere. Many times for reasons we haven't figured out yet, or because no system is ever completely enclosed. If we get exactly precise results, it's very very lucky. I think of science as this huge collaborative enterprise, where all of our data will pull together and tell us the answers that we need. It is OUR collective human enterprise. Much better to contribute to this, than just struggle to reproduce and survive.

Another note as well, while we look back on many geniuses of our time as having stood out for being unique in one way or another, the truth is that no one is completely unique or a complete genius. We all derive our knowledge from somewhere else. Some small truths might lead to new truths. Some painting techniques, might lead to new painting techniques. Things don't come out from a vacuum. What is genuinely unique about these historical geniuses, is the confluence of lucky variables which lead them to learn their skill and lead them to get widely recognized by the people around them.

Mar. 22 2013 12:57 AM
judith tanen from westchester, ny

same!!! where is that episode about the girl with the easter basket?!! I wanted to play it for my students -- it's a great "life lesson" for the last day I will have them with me in class. Please help . . . .


obsessed teacher who has spent way too much time searching for this broadcast!!!!!!

Jun. 09 2011 08:22 AM
Pons Materum III

I remember hearing this episode on the radio, but there was a segment about a girl learning about swinging a bucket upside down and learning that the stuff didn't fall out. Also, its above in the description. But it doesn't seem to be in the podcast when i download it.


Mar. 21 2011 01:17 AM
Paul from Denville NJ


Nov. 05 2009 09:49 AM
Jim H. from Neptune, New Jersey

I would like to take a stab at the topic of discovery being a brilliant mind or just blink luck to be the first to find it. While the phenomenon is lurking out there ready for someone to find it, it still takes a brilliant mind to not only observer the phenomenon, but also to model it in a working theory.

Let’s take celestial mechanics. After Copernicus, et al. figured out the sun was at the center, Newton “discovered” gravity not just the reason the planets orbited the sun, but also why the apple fell.

After Newton, Einstein “discovered” relativity, which explained gravity as the bending a time-space.

Does gravity really exist? Did Newton discover something that was already there, or did he invent a model that explained observable behaviors until Einstein?

Does relativity really exist, or is it just the most accurate invention of Dr. Einstein’s mind that describes what we are able to observe?

Who knows what future theories will unfold? Will these theories discover what’s really going on, or does it just peel one more layer off of the onion for another brilliant mind?

Feb. 26 2009 08:27 PM
Spencer Hargiss

I've got it.
Here's the video of the Yellow Fluffy Stuff from the sub:

Jan. 21 2009 11:35 PM
Chris Linder

You can see a photo of the fluff in the collection jar here:

Jan. 21 2009 11:59 AM
Flounder from Friggin Cold

Where in God's name is the GD Yellow Fluffy Stuff?? GD it I quit smoking today and I want to see the f-g Yellow Fluffy Stuff!!!!!!!!!!

Jan. 20 2009 11:29 AM
Jesse Acosta from Hawaii

I want to be the one who eats the yellow fluffy stuff, but first I must see it!

Jan. 16 2009 04:12 PM
Phil Harnish from San Francisco, CA

I came for the fluffy stuff. Bummer.

Jan. 15 2009 09:00 PM
Jake Young from Silver Spring, MD



Jan. 15 2009 12:00 PM
christophsol from san francisco

I came to this site to see some yellow fluffy stuff. They must have taken some photos!

Dec. 26 2008 03:24 PM
JessB from Portland, OR

My dreams are plagued by Yellow Fluffy Stuff. Please satisfy my desires!

Dec. 17 2008 11:41 PM

We're working on getting fluff photos! Last we heard there were some very busy biologists who needed to be harassed to provide images. Pls consider them suitably harassed.


Dec. 16 2008 05:04 PM
JACK from DC


Dec. 14 2008 07:09 PM
stew from dc

it's not so much a "miraculous accident" that 'we are here,' that the universe which bore us did so even despite conceivable (ha! words!) alternative outcomes.

we are here, therefore the universe led to us. other universes, other sets of initial conditions might not have led to life, and in those universes, no one will be wondering why.

p.s. I too would like to see the yellow fluffy stuff!

Dec. 14 2008 12:53 PM
Patrice from nyc

show us the yellow fluffy stuff!

Dec. 12 2008 03:42 PM
Carey from NYC

I wanna see a picture of the "ski slopes of yellow fluffy stuff!"

Dec. 12 2008 01:41 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.