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Be Careful What You Plan For

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Ben Zimmer (the "On Language" columnist for The New York Times Magazine) sets the wheels in motion with some cautionary newsroom tales: attempts to avoid human error lead to editorial absurdities no one saw coming. Then, a Harvard psychologist eager to safeguard Cold War troops from brainwashing creates an experiment (described as "stressful interrogation") to weed out unfit candidates. But the experiment takes a toll on a shy undergrad…who goes on to become a notorious terrorist. Professor Ruben Gur and writer Alston Chase shed some light on the story. Next, we're off to Wheeler Peak, Nevada--the home of the Bristlecone Pine. Nature writer Michael Cohen and reporter Pat Walters tell the story of Don Currey, a scientist whose tool malfunction unwittingly led to the death of the world’s oldest tree. Ron Lanner, a retired forest service scientist helps describe the scene, and Robert and Pat debate the value of such an old tree.

Update/Spoiler Alert - Please don't read if you haven't yet listened!: 

Good news people! In this story, we talk about Don Curry, the man unwittingly responsible for killing the world's oldest tree. "Prometheus", as the tree came to be known, was 4,844 years old--the oldest living individual organism on the planet. Needless to say, Curry was pretty grief-stricken. But in 2013, says Dr. Peter Brown of the Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research Group, a new, oldest living tree was found! Our new elderly record-breaker is right around 5,060 years of age, making it roughly 200 years older than Prometheus when it was cut down. Phew! It was found in the same forest in California and is the same species--a bristlecone pine--as Prometheus. (Though the exact location won't be released in order to protect the from the public.) Don Curry, you can now Rest In Peace.

Comments [35]


Is it Currey or Curry? Correct your spelling.

Feb. 12 2018 01:06 PM
David from Santa Barbara

Big thumbs up to the sound designer/composer. In the Bristlecone pine story, at 2,000 years old, I just heard you use the Seikilos epitaph, the oldest notated complete composition to survive from anywhere in the world. Perfection. That can't be beat. Keep up the great work. :)

May. 14 2017 07:24 PM
Ralph Glenn from Flagstaff, AZ

A note: The Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains of California found to be 5,060years old in 2013 would have been 5,011 years old when Prometheus was cut down. Since the center core of Prometheus was missing below the 8 foot level of the tree, the tree rings of his youth had rotted away, scientists estimate that it was probably over 5,000 years old given the probable number of years it would take to reach 8 feet tall.

Sep. 25 2016 01:54 PM

Really people, you are complaining about snickering? Get over it. Yes it was unfortunate the guy cut down what was thought, at the time, was the oldest organism, but it's one of those tragedies you have to laugh about, because of the absurdity of it.

Feb. 19 2016 12:12 PM
mary from California

Interesting that the oldest tree story and the very off-putting snickering get more mentions than anything on your program. That should tell you lab.

The Harvard prof.....definitely a sicko....not just a concerned patriot...not at all. That story is chilling in that it shows just how protected by privilege and a facade of respectability this man's evil treatment of quite a few undergrads still is...on your show even today.

Kirtland's warbler story....the issue is framed in a twisted manner. It is a bird species worth more than one human life...that's just a misleading way to put it. And yes, kind of an unkind way to question the family. Hello....we're all temporary individuals.....a species though has a lot more longevity. Those Kirtlands warblers are probably way older as a species than your oldest living tree...or oldest living anything...Since we're all temporary would be better than most ways to go actually making a difference in the survival of a whole species. I mean hey....lot's of us go just by stuffing way too much junk food into our own mouths. Of course, it would have been much better if the "controlled burn" had been done under better conditions and spared the young man's life....his death was completely unnecessary and accidental...and to try to blame it on an endangered species is just ridiculous. Some people elect to climb mountains and die that way...or they elect to do any number of risky sports for the thrills and sometimes die that way. Was their fun experience worth dieing for? Why don't we hear any stories questioning whether the fun is worth dining for? But, if you take a risk for an endangered species, that gets questioned all over the place. Well hey, maybe trying to save a species on the edge is fun for some people. Some people die just crossing the street....for pete's sake....helping save a species....that's way better than most ways. The tragedy is that human error took such a well-motivated young person. The bird had nothing to do with it.

Poison Lake story....that's a good one. Lot's of levels...interesting cause and effect there....So are the microbes left by the geese going to clean up the lake? Maybe in a hundred thousand years? We sure have a problem with basic disrespect for this planet and humans too. Something all your stories today illustrate poignantly.

Oct. 18 2015 12:36 AM
Kent Corbell

More from Rachel Sussman on the world's oldest living organisms...

Oct. 17 2015 12:27 PM
Lori Parr from Montana kufm

I must say that I was profoundly disappointed,disgruntled, and highly disturbed with your story about the cutting down of an ancient tree. I've not heard a more disrespectful sorry done on radio, which is really saying something, because there is so much disrespect for the planet in the media these days. Your snickering and chortling over the demise of an ancient being really made me want to avoid your program to the end of time. And tell my many friends.
F off, and shame on you!

Oct. 16 2015 09:31 PM
elly from toronto

It doesnt matter if one tree is 4600 years old or 5200 years old... both were idiots and cut down a massive tree because of a dumb mans tool. Rainforests are being cut down football fields at a time and were focused on this story being fake? How ignorant are we?
get your heads out of your arses and maybe realize that were all pretty much doomed. Many trees thousands years of age are cut down every day. The earth will rejuvinate itself but not after we kill ourselves off... have fun with your podcasts people.

May. 20 2015 09:43 AM
Ken from Eugene, OR

Some of you out there are just way too easily offended. The snickering added color to the story. Humor has always been able to live with tragedy, especially in irony. Small minded people seem only able to parrot phrases and attitudes that are sterile. Get a pulse.

Aug. 22 2014 02:21 PM
Jeff from Arlington, VA

I just heard the story about the killing of the world's oldest tree. The snickering by the hosts made me decide to turn off Radio Lab. I found their approach to the story to be juvenile and offensive.

May. 18 2014 12:29 PM
smores from Ely, NV

Thanks for the story on the bristlecone and Don Curry. I just heard this story even though it's three years old on my local NPR station. Don was one of my geography professors at the University of Utah. Before he retired he was specializing in prehistoric lakes of the Great Basin. I got to take a week long field trip with him through the Great Basin 13 year ago and I really learned a lot from him. He was such a great guy! Now I and another of his former students both live less than an hour from Wheeler Peak and these fascinating trees.

Jul. 08 2013 03:30 PM

Your report about the substitution of "black" with "African-American" is a kind of urban myth. According to alt.folklore.urban, such a wording example did appear in the Fresno Bee in 1990, but its inclusion there was more of an illustration of what can happen, in a kind of practical joke, of the unintended result of an automated "correction."

Jul. 07 2013 09:43 PM

I was extremely offended by the frat boy snickering at the idiotic and thoughtless destruction of the Bristlecone Pine...
What tone deaf editor thought this shouldn't have been cut?

I have heard this program broadcast on two separate occasions about 4 months apart....each time I heard the buffoons at the end laughing and giggling... and couldn't believe Radiolab thought it appropriate to re-broadcast it.

I would prefer to use much, much stronger language to describe what I think of those two....

Jul. 07 2013 07:08 PM

I would like to just point out that this segment made it sound like it was the park ranger's suggestion that lead to his cutting down of the tree... shouldn't they take some of the blame? Also, I think Katie's question should also be drawn to attention here as another sign of overly harsh accusations toward him. I think the story may have been just a tad blown up.

Jul. 04 2011 11:03 PM

Thank you for this show! I study tree rings and have heard about this tree, but I didn't know that Don Curry (who was my husband's graduate advisor) was the 'slayer' of the tree. Poor guy! Poor tree!

I will say that it can be very difficult to get an accurate age on trees like this. It's unfortunate that it was cut down, but it has served us well since. I'm sure there are many ancient trees that are safe and sound, hiding their age under their petticoats like all self-respecting old ladies.

Jun. 02 2011 05:37 PM
Robert from MA

Pretty sure we know how he felt about it. The guy quit researching trees and worked on salt flats for the rest of his life and ran away from someone that recognized him.

Apr. 08 2011 10:17 PM

In reference to the TED link provided above, the tree cut was "the oldest living non-clonal organism ever known". Not sure if they made that clear in the broadcast, but I'm guessing most listeners wouldn't have picked up on it anyway. Regardless, it is a pretty ridiculous story, hence why it was good. I heard it 9 months ago and was thinking about it today enough to try to find it again. That's definitely the power of good storytelling!

Feb. 26 2011 02:51 PM
markieobrien from michigan

The snickering by the hosts over the destruction of one bristle cone pine was to say the least unsettling. It makes me want to lobby for the removal of RadioLab from the local public radio station. Why does the word "jerks" come to mind?

Feb. 23 2011 09:12 PM
Lee from Colorado

More ancient organisms:,0,2673096.story

Dec. 08 2010 06:51 PM
Austin J. Pratt from Reno, (western) Nevada

Wonderful show, Radiolab! I just wanted to clarify that Wheeler Peak is not in Western Nevada, as the story suggests, it is in Eastern Nevada. Oops!

Dec. 01 2010 09:57 AM
Gordon from Curacao

Hey all - the claim in the show was that the now dead tree was the oldest living thing, rather than just the oldest living tree. But have a look at this talk on TED: - lichen that's 3,000 years old, brain coral that's 2,000 years old, a clonal colony of Aspen trees in Utah that is 80,000 years old... ahem... clonal spruce in Sweden that's over 9,000 years old, a tree (yew) in the UK is between 2000 and 5000 years old, underground forest in South Africa that's up to 13,000 years old... and the list goes on. Ho hum.

Nov. 01 2010 02:46 PM
Ludlow from Milwaukee

For those of us who knew Don Curry, he will be forever remember for his generosity and humanity. He was a fiend and mentor to many.

Sep. 29 2010 03:31 PM
Mark from Minneapolis

possibly the oldest tree. We have not checked every tree on earth.
We would not know it was the "oldest tree" if it was not for Curry.

Sep. 28 2010 06:13 PM
Dee K from Louisiana

THANK GOODNESS you guys are back... our NPR affiliate here has been playing this really lame show in your time slot over the summer. BORING!!!
Anyway, about the warbler story...I can see doing something to help an endangered bird, but was killing another bird species really necessary? Excellent example of human cruelty (and snobbery) at its finest, how ironic!

Sep. 26 2010 11:19 PM
Eileen from Maine

I listened to "oops" for the first time today.
I thought the stories about the automatic editing were very funny.
Then came the story of the careless destruction of the oldest living organism.
I perceived that event to be tragic and was taken aback by all the giggling on the part of the interviewers.
Perhaps the joke was over my head.

Sep. 05 2010 03:56 PM
Justin Bowen from St. Joseph, MI

This is an amazing show! You guys are such wonderful story-tellers, which is a hard thing to come by in any medium. Kudos to you.

Sep. 04 2010 12:08 PM
AKG from London, UK

Dear Mr. Krulwich:

Homosexuals (especially female ones) are good at many things besides kissing men. There is nothing to indicate any necessary lack of athletic ability correlated to the sexuality of an individual. While it is true than an anecdotal link between homosexuality in males and under-performance in athletics exists, this hardly constitutes scientific proof and - even in the anecdotal realm - the stereotype for homosexual females runs the other way, indicating an anecdotal correlation between better than average athletic performance and homosexuality in females. The word homosexual is ungendered and it is erroneous to assume that it implies maleness in any given individual not otherwise specified.



Perhaps it is time to consider doing a Radio Lab episode on gender and sexuality?

Jul. 17 2010 08:13 AM
Kevin from Waukee,Ia

Thanks for the story on Prometheus. It will be required listening for my Woods I students!

Jul. 15 2010 05:34 PM

Do a show on me, I've invented a radio that brings in shows from the future.

Actually, I really do wish you'd run a show on tree ring sampling.

How do they determine where in a tree to core? At which compass point, at what height, etc.?

How do they pick which trees?

Why do they believe this gives a random sampling, and why do they believes this yields precision down to fractions of a degree?

And can they prove that to other scientists: physicists, chemists, geologists, other biologists, statisticians, etc.

Combine that with is peer review required for science, and when and how did it become required? Does peer review => science, or is science a f(repeatibility, falsifiability, useful predictions) and if so, what IS the role of peer review?

And combine that with what is now referred to as "post normal science"

Jul. 11 2010 03:13 PM
Lynn from Austin, Texas

This was a great story on so many levels guys. One of my armpits began sweating spontaneously in empathy for the scientist.

Jul. 10 2010 06:29 PM
Trey Rowzie from Kyoto, Japan

The MP3 download is only 25:23 ... is there a Part 2?

Jul. 08 2010 04:51 AM
debbie from california

Did one of these odd events warp the space-time continuum? The broadcast date of this episode is posted as September 3, 2010. Is that what you intended to do?

Jul. 01 2010 08:27 PM
Aaron The Truck Driver from

You guys could of did a whole episode on the mine lake! That was awesome.

Jun. 30 2010 01:46 PM
Katie from Honolulu

Regarding the story about the tree, one question I have, that I didn't hear the answer did they know this was the oldest tree? Weren't there other trees in the same forest that could have been just as old?

Jun. 29 2010 06:37 PM
robert from milwaukee, wi

searching for donal currey will prove more useful than dan curry

Jun. 29 2010 04:55 PM

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