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The History of Everything, Including You

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New stars being born in the Elephant's Trunk Nebula New stars being born in the Elephant's Trunk Nebula (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

 Jad and Robert talk to a writer who is grappling with versions of the same enormous question: is it possible to understand everything, or are we chasing an impossible dream... one built on questions that always lead to more questions?



Comments [18]

Katja from UK

I enjoyed this poem to start with, but ended up disappointed with how it became personal, when I wanted it to stay celestial. That's just my taste, and I do believe it's an excellent poem in its own right. However, it made me want to write the poem I'd been wanting to read. So I did, and I put it here:

Dec. 21 2016 09:59 AM
Tristan from Pasadena, California

Radiolab (and Christian Scientists),

I am in no way attempting to overshadow this lovely author and I really enjoyed how she read her work. I have recently come across your show and I'm listening to show after show. I wrote something like this, but it is all about Gold. I wanted to write in a scientific, down-to-earth way about numbers and chemistry, but when I finished, I realized I had written a new creation story of the universe. Check it out how it starts:


Gold is a great metaphor for wisdom, concentrated forms of precious substance. Gold is also useful for explaining chemistry. I used copper to explain atoms to my dad because he has a few big pieces of native copper and the chemistry book uses pennies to talk about a mol of a substance. Gold is easier, more interesting, and I learned all about gold mineralization in a field geology class. We learned that pre-concentrated gold becomes even more concentrated by hydrothermal fluids caused by subduction events involving oceanic crust. The way the hot water dissolves minerals and then redeposits them with the bulk silica as it cools, is a really dope metaphor for wisdom. Adversity causes a melding of ideas and later reflection crystallizes times of beautifully inspired meditation.
Gold is a part of California’s history. The gold rush is the reason Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Diego all exist as metropolitan areas. The reason so many people came here and developed this region is because of gold fever and travel mania. Consequently, we live in a civilization developed out of the Wild West and yet we’re as modern as London, Toyko, New York, and Beijing. ... ...

and how it ends:

... ...Theoretically, smashing enough helium and hydrogen could make Gold atoms, but cannot be controlled enough so as not to make other elements and at the same time level an entire city. It would not be worth the cost.
A plasma of protons and electrons could probably fuse some Gold Nuclei into existence but that’s also what created the universe, and should theoretically destroy this one instead of making a new one. Maybe God was just trying to make a heavy, inert metal. A huge, magnetic, superheated plasma of charges and mass in a contained bubble. That was our cradle. Look, junior’s produced Gold, in veins stemming from magmatic heat chambers, and dissolved, invisible masses of gold in the oceans. It’s a process so complex, it takes billions of years, about slightly less than 13 billion. We even mined it (for God) and melted it into bigger masses, a higher concentration by smelting, producing my hypothetical 5-pound bar. Thank God for all of the additional extras. After all, there’s more to the universe than heat and magnetism, isn’t there? What about Spy movies, first dates, poisonous frogs and snakes, and cuttlefish? ...

[My work is 5 Microsoft Word pages long.]
Can I send you a copy to read?

By the way, I love how she talked about sex! Thank you. I didn't. She is so cool.

Sep. 17 2016 02:00 PM
Gary Ruggera from Durango CO

Provocative, fascinating, just like Ötzi's story. A creative compliment to the program, I to it listened twice..
The narrow-mindedness of some of the other commenters is impressive, but understandable.
I would enjoy more of this sort of interjection, stimulating just like the more scientific fare.

Jul. 17 2016 01:11 PM
Eoline from Heart of the Midwest

The appeal of this essay—apart from condensing a chunk of science into prosetry—is its use of pronouns. We scores big with 48; you is runner-up with 25; I is a modest third with 15; and there is a miscellaneous 6 your, 5 our, 4 us, 2 me, 2 ourselves and only 1 marginalizing they. I and you are frequently used in tandem, implying a relationship. Hints of existential separation are minimal. This essay signifies companionship as the natural state of normal life. Is that comforting? Is everyone so lucky? Perhaps there are more people on the planet that identify with George the lone Galapagos tortoise than Radiolab realizes.

Jul. 16 2016 08:06 PM
Alexandra from Pittsburgh

I've listened to this poem 4 times in a row now. It's mesmerizing. I love it.

Mar. 04 2016 02:52 PM
Holly from Mid west

I absolutely loved it and her reading it to us was even more memorable.
Thank you.

Oct. 20 2015 09:56 PM

I found her poem tobe an intriguing stepping stone in her search for clarity. I believe that as specific as her words detailed, wonder drives the bus. As susinct as her lines were it is impossible to reduce the variables of life into a linear thread, even given the habit of clocks. I think at some point the asking of oneself purpose or relative value to the world has no tangibility only ambiguity. When one lives in dissapointment or fear they are living in the past, when one lives in anxiety or worry they are living inthe future.... life only happens and has a sum on the present.

Oct. 13 2015 02:05 PM
Richard from San Diego

This piece emotionally touched me like nothing else has for a while. Beautifully philosophical and existential, it has been stirring up thoughts in my mind since I heard it last weekend. Thank you for broadcasting.

Oct. 01 2015 11:43 AM
Vince Mannings from Pasadena, CA

The piece was brilliant, and it works for me as both stirring prose and beautiful poetry. To those who complain that it becomes too personal, please recall its full title. It's MEANT to become personal. Thanks also to the writer for a superb reading.

Sep. 28 2015 01:49 PM
Jeff from Los Angeles

I don't have the chops to squint through the vapors and explain why this piece does or doesn't fit today's show. However, driving home from the bike shop I heard it and sped up to get home to a computer to find and replay it. The compressed and elegaic lines touched me deeply. I'm grateful you included it. I get it.

Sep. 27 2015 11:42 PM
John from OH

Thumbs down to this.

I mean, you guys do science stories...right?

Sep. 27 2015 09:03 PM
ST from California

This poem is a textbook example of oversharing. Do we really need to know all those personal details? TMI!

Sep. 27 2015 07:44 PM
lynn kiesewetter from Mendocino, CA

I found the last piece a perfect ending, neatly bookending what the 1st piece had begun. Just like the c;ues leading to the discovery of the ice-man's last hours, we get clues leading up to the narrator's husband's ending.
Nothing whiney here, nothing we can't all relate to.

The author's name, however, is missing at this site.

Sep. 26 2015 10:07 PM
Kristen from Bend, Oregon

While I agree that this piece didn't fit in with the fascinating hard science of the rest of the show, by the end of the piece I found it touching and poignant. I surprised myself at how affecting I found it. think I even sighed,"Hmmm!" Thank you for a fabulous show.

Sep. 26 2015 06:06 PM
Neesh from Midwest

Honestly a pain to get through. Nearly up once it became apparent this was nothing more than a second rate "RAW", "CONFESSIONAL", and "POIGNANT" MFA thesis with only a tangential relation with anything the curious listeners of Radiolab tune in for. The prose itself felt like a stilted attempt to check off each passage of time with a sentimental touch that comes across as both false, self-absorbed and hamfisted. The descent into this privileged writer's boring pathology and minor relationship woes lacked any nuance to separate it from the thousands of similar pieces written along these lines.

I'm honestly confused as to how this made it to air. It feels like a TAL B-side. I would hope more of your audience takes offense to the notion that the person outlined in this story was meant to them and that they were meant to them and their lives. I agree with the other listeners calling this a whiney story and impossible to connect with and I must also add that it is the worst addition to a Radiolab episode thus far. A sour bookend to a fascinating episode. Please never do another piece like this again. Thanks.

Sep. 26 2015 05:56 PM
Chris from The western most edge of the faded American dream..

Despite the previous commenters whining about thinking they heard whining, I found the story touching and thought provoking. And I'm just a regular guy..

Sep. 26 2015 05:03 PM
Edwin D. Rios from New York, NY

Talk about whiney

Sep. 26 2015 03:03 PM
Ruth from Baltimore

I enjoyed the beginning of this piece, but honestly, I don't care at all about this woman's upper class suburban angst that ends the piece. OK, so she's trying to connect the whole history of time to her family's existence, I get that. But her family story went on too long and sounded just plain whiney to me. I listen to science geek shows like Radiolab because I'm not that interested in the personal marital problems of other people with more money and fewer problems than I have.

So, essentially, this last piece ruined what was, to that point, a fascinating program.

Sep. 26 2015 02:01 PM

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