- 1,901 views
- 25 Mar 2021
Scientists took about 300 years to lay out the Periodic Table into neat rows and columns. In one hour, we’re going to mess it all up. This episode, we enlist journalists, poets, musicians, and even a physicist to help us tell stories of matter that matters. You’ll never look at that chart the same way again.
Special thanks to Emotive Fruition for organizing poetry performances and to the mighty Sylvan Esso for composing 'Jaime's Song', both inspired by this episode.
Thanks also to Sam Kean, Chris Howk, Brian Fields and to Paul Dresher and Ned Rothenberg for the use of their song "Untold Story:The Edge of Sleep".
Check out Jaime Lowe's book Mental: Lithium, Love and Losing My Mind
Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.
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Listener supported WNYC Studios. Wait, you're OK? You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Helium revoked. There is no sheen, Liam. Yes, he is PR. and aliment top ranking, the most noble guys. But if there was she Liam, how fi wi like she might be.
I'm Jad Abumrad. I'm Robert Krulwich. This is Radio Lab, and today elements. Yeah, I carried your oxygen and you walked beside me through the lobby commenting on the decor. When you needed to stop for breath, your hand ran light and steady. By the ocean of breath twice, I remember I carried your oxygen. It was heavy. A bleak alloy. Still. This hour is a collaboration with poets like the ones you heard, and we are more of musicians, reporters and of course, the periodic table of elements.
Speaking of which, our producer, John Wheeler, whose sodium spark brain conceived this entire show, he will lead us off.
So this one starts with a story I heard from Jamie Lowe. She's a writer in Brooklyn. And at the heart of this story is this particular 24 hour period in Jamie's life that she is uneasy about.
Let's just set it up for one second. So what are we about to watch?
I'm not actually exactly sure where it starts, but we're about to watch.
I think the night before Valentine's Day 2001, I eventually convinced her to sit down with producer Latife Nasser and sort of just walk us through the tape.
Go for it. You're in control there with the spacebar. All right. Yeah. Thank you, Jamie. Jamie, my video starts.
It's nighttime. Jamie and her friend Mike, he's the one filming there outside his apartment in Brooklyn. And the camera is pointed at a bunch of high school students who were just walking by.
So it's a jail cell. So you want to be an actress, right?
Yeah, I love that 56.
So. Yeah, really.
That's so cool by any other name would smell as. Yeah, it is my enemy for the not a Montague. What's Montague. It is no hand nor foot nor arm or face nor any other part belonging to a man.
And somehow I'm like egging them on to say that, that perfection which he owes without that title and Romeo doffed thy name and for thy name, which is no part of thee take all my stuff is not part of that.
It cannot. Sam screaming babies up. By the way, I he eventually turns to Jamie.
She's sitting on the stoop, a huge curly hair, wide eyes, and she starts to sing the kids a song because, you know, coming is, you know, the kids.
I was pretty convinced that I was like a great singer and rapper. She, like, sat down with you producing a lot in.
No, I never, never I am not a singer. I just started singing like that. What was it like?
I thought it was fun to watch people react to her. She made people really happy wherever she went. She we went to flea markets and she would talk to people and she would pull the spark out of it. It just felt like New York loved her. That's Mike Ryan, guy holding the camera.
He'd only met Jamie just three weeks earlier, not long after he moved to New York and they pretty much instantly became friends.
OK, she was so positive, I guess now, as I recall, she's talking to some little kids on a stoop.
But then that next four or five hours was pretty defining.
I don't remember it, they cut to Mike's apartment.
I think you're just walking around in a bra and open dress, sparkly a red bra and plastic bag, plastic bag on the stomach, belly dancing. You might have to shield their eyes. OK, here we go.
Fast forward about four hours. That's my case. Sleeping. Oh, boy. Good morning. It's Valentine's Day, 2001. That's cumquats and avocado's the cumquats. I picked up my grandpa and I come clutching three or four days ago. That's true. There's three breakfast bars.
What is all that stuff on the cutting board up cut up power bars from the prison.
I gave you that title and a cup of wine that we're going to drink and a cup of wine, of course, at seven forty in the morning, sitting in a nap or anything at noon.
Or do you just keep on telling us, oh, here's a dollar for my sejima.
What's going to happen today? Today I'm going to contact MTV to Debate Club, push Nader for Iraq and Fidel Castro. Yeah, it is amazing. Man over social media has to be about me, about anything, but I don't think goes back to the swamp if I were you or were you meaning that literally that you were going to go on MTV and debate Gore v. Bush and then that is exactly what I had in mind for the day.
I thought it was make believe it seemed harmless. It just didn't occur to me that what I was seeing was somebody who had deviated substantially from who they wanted to be.
It changed the world. Jesus Christ. Eventually, Mike got up, had to go to work.
Jamie took off for a while, and then later that day she showed up at his office. And at first everything seemed sort of fine.
But within twenty minutes she said, Hey, tell you what, can we go to the roof really fast?
What? And that immediately got me uncomfortable.
So, OK. Over P.A. floral wrap around skirt. We are now going to the roof. You ready to go out?
I think you can hear he is done like the day has been insane. This is at the end of that day, snowing Seventh Avenue rooftop. What is this anything. What is it? A piece of yarn. Mr.. Mike, Patrick Ryan. Well, you. I can have to work. But. On top of the world. At the World Trade Center. Yeah, if you want. Tonight. At. Jamie. That's when at that point he was like.
Done, we're done well. Yeah, I mean. Yeah, that's when it it hit me that there is no way that any of this reflects what she would actually want. I don't know if delusional is a kind word here and if it's not apologized, but if she's delusional enough to think that we should get married, is she delusional enough to think she can fly? Will she be distraught when I say no, no. And will she would she jump?
And so I lowered the camera and I said, I'm afraid of heights and I want to go downstairs immediately. And I felt for the first time just fear. And I called her I believe I called her mother first lien. And I just said, my name is Mike. I'm a friend of Jamie's. And I think she may be going through something and I don't know what I'm dealing with. I'm in over my head here. When Mike called, I, I just got on a red eye that night.
That's LeAnn Lantos, Jamie's mom. It was my job to get her to go back to her therapist so that we could get some medication in her for the end.
This episode was not entirely a surprise. It had happened once before when Jamie was in high school.
At that time, she was not sleeping at night, spinning around the room, talking nonstop about how she had to save Central America from disaster.
During that first episode, Jamie ended up at a place called the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA, and she ended up being treated by this guy, Dr. Mark Dantonio. He's a psychiatrist.
She was in a very acute manic, psychotic state.
I remember being sort of tackled by nurses to actually take my meds because I refused to we didn't know if we would ever see our Jamie again.
You know, that was that was the scariest part.
Everyone around me, I think, was really, really worried that I wouldn't come back.
But she did come back and it's what brought her back. That is actually the reason I got so interested in the story.
So shortly after she was admitted, Dr. Dantonio told Jamie's parents, we know what this is and we know how to treat it.
And he said she's a classic case of of bipolar.
There is no question.
And the drug of choice is lithium, which is not even a drug, but just this salt.
And he's explained to us, you know, that she would need to take three tablets of lithium, three tablets of the salt, and it could bring her back when it works.
It's just remarkable. Do you have memories of, like, what it was like to come back like that, what you were thinking or what it felt like, I.
It's really hard to describe.
It's a little bit of like a slow realization of a of like, oh, that was a weird thing that I did a week ago. Like, why did I do that?
The first time she was actually lucid and coming back to herself again, the first words out of her mouth were, Mom, it's not me. And I just that just killed me within a few weeks, it was like the incident never happened. It's so bizarre. I mean, I felt like here was this thing that's assault that I get to just take three of a day. And and that was a totally normal no side effects, no issues. She went off to college and just like, flourished.
And it was great. Things were good for a long time. And then after about six years, she said, you know, I've been on this pill for six years. I've had no problems. I'd like to go off it. Why don't we try to go off gradually? In about a month after she was totally off lithium, she was wack. In Mike's apartment up all night, you were so tired. Just a minute ago. That's because you told me I had to leave.
But now I'm still here, aren't I? Totally manic episode all over because I am. Whatever you say.
That's it. One of the things that kind of makes lithium that effective lithium has so spooky and you hear this from a lot of people that have taken lithium to treat bipolar, is that lithium itself is so.
Simple lithium is an element, it's it's a single atom. This has been Lily, he's a writer, runs the Story Collider podcast. He's had some personal experience with psychiatric drugs and he's written about lithium. That, to me, was fascinating, that that a single atom can change what we think of who we are. I mean, it's not even not just an atom is atom number three. It's the third element in the table. It's one of the simplest atoms.
So it's just three protons for neutrons, three electrons.
That's a pretty simple matter. I mean, it doesn't get much. It really is. This had never struck me when I was on Lexapro or Wellbutrin, which is the other one they put me on. You know, if you look at them, they look like what you expect, a pharmaceutical drug to look like. There's a ring of carbon atoms and some other things stuck on bit. And they look like these big complex molecules. And you're like, oh, yeah, I'm I'm complex.
My brain's complex. It takes this complicated thing to change it. And then you're confronted with just this, Adam, it was found by accident that it works. It's not complicated to make. It's just assault that you distill out, and yet it has this profound effect. The other thing I know about lithium, that is that is profoundly weird is that you're not just saying my mind, my personality is being changed by an atom. It's being changed by an atom that was created directly in the Big Bang itself.
So you have this atom formed in the Big Bang, goes through whatever it does, winding path to come onto the earth, gets dug up, turned into a pill given to someone, and that changes their affect in the world. And that, to me is it's just it's this profound reminder that the forces that shape everything in the universe are the same as the forces that are shaping who we are and what we do and what our identity is. And it's possible that these forces shape not just the people with bipolar disorder, but all of us think it was.
I end up talking to a clinical psychiatrist and a fellow who told me about these studies, huge epidemiologic studies, because one I think was in Japan, one was in Austria, one was in Greece, famous one in Texas, in which they looked at communities that different levels of lithium, lithium in the water supply. And we're talking about tiny, tiny amounts, micrograms.
Those are a thousandth of the amount in a milligram, if you think of like a pill of lithium.
Well, we're talking about amounts like ten thousandth of a pill. Like that's the amount that we're dealing with here. And these studies found, by and large, in towns that had a tiny bit more lithium in the water. Suicide rates were lower, in some cases as much as 30 percent, I should say.
The Texas study, which is astonishing, also shows that the towns that have the highest lithium level have lower felonies, thefts, rapes, and these are reputable published studies.
Now, these studies are only showing us correlations, but there does at least seem to be some kind of connection.
And I mean, if there is a connection, what the hell is it doing?
Do they know why it works in the brain? Like, do they know what it does? Well, essentially, no. It's still kind of a mystery, one of them.
But here's Mark Dantonio theory. He says, We know that bipolar disorder involves a defect in a certain part of the brain. It's an area of the brain that has to do with controlling mood. So believe it or not, there's neurons in the brain that keep your mood. Even these neurons, they do their job by sort of passing electricity back and forth and that electricity is carried by sodium ions.
So the whole system is pretty much based on sodium. Lithium is very similar to sodium. So if you have lithium in the brain, the neurons will use that to communicate. They'll send lithium ions back and forth. And here's what's interesting. Lithium works just like sodium, but not as well.
Lithium is similar enough in properties that it can be an imposter, but whatever does, it just doesn't work as well.
That's the key, he says. So then this area of the brain, the defective area of the brain that makes these moods flip on and off so intensely doesn't work as well.
And that stops a bipolar episode that's so interesting that maybe it's sluggishness is what makes it good. Yep, yep.
Although he says that same trick where it can be a sort of sodium imposture, but slower, that can also cause issues.
Slight tremors in your hand. You can have nausea, they can affect the kidneys, the balance of sodium. Your body is regulated partially through the kidneys and somehow lithium replacing it can be toxic to the kidneys.
Which actually brings us back to Jamie. So before after that episode in New York with Mike in the video, she went back on Lithium. And again, she was fine. In fact, for the last 16 years, she's been completely normal.
But then a couple months ago, I went to a new primary physician, mostly because I'm lazy and I didn't want to go to the Upper West Side to see my other doctor. And this doctor basically took my blood pressure and was like, you're going to die. You need to go to the E.R..
It turns out her kidneys were failing.
And so she suddenly had to make this choice that I could sort of just stay on lithium and, you know, go to dialysis and get a transplant or that I had to switch.
And that now would be when I would switch that I had enough function left that I could you how you are in the middle of that decision now, you feel like or do you feel like it's I think I'm going to switch.
I think I made that decision. It's just that every psychiatrist in New York leaves for August because I don't know why, but they all disappear for August, all of August. And mine said you should probably wait to switch until I come back.
But I, I feel like I have a good group of people around me. I have a solid job.
I it's terrifying to court mania, but I also feel like there are a lot of effective drugs and that one of them is going to work. They won't be as cool as lithium though. Depakote sounds like. Oh God.
Thankful you're on Depakote as she was in the middle of that decision, Jamie did one last thing. She actually took a trip to Bolivia, which is where much of the world's lithium comes from.
There's this place you can go and literally see these massive. Salt flats, which are just covered in mounds of lithium. I just wanted to see them, I wanted to experience them, I wanted to be near them. So I went. It just looks like a hallucination. It looks like somebody could not have conceived of this landscape.
You know, you have Red Lakes and you have flocks of flamingos and this like long, salty expanse that goes on for ever. Like, it's just huge. It's enormous.
Do you go up to a pile and put your hand on it?
Yeah, you can you stand on it and you jump off the pile and like I was making kind of with the angels. And it was awesome. I know I have to go off of it, but I really am. I mean, gratitude is like not even the word. It's I feel like this thing allows me to be me. It doesn't define me, but it allows for, you know, functionality. And that sounds kind of wonky. But it's like every day I get to work and it's because of that, like everything, you know, I'm just I'm grateful to it for its service.
I feel like it's done. It's done a lot for for me. It worked so hard to get to me, too, from the Big Bang to now. Producer Sean Wheeler, Sean is made of elements, though not of lithium, which we should say only, some of which was made in the Big Bang. Some of it was also made in a supernova. And we'll have one of those coming up. Special thanks to Ben Lily and Harington Kay Redfield Jamison, Steve Lowe and of course, Jameela James working on a book about her experiences with bipolar.
It will be called Grand Delusions. This is a song from the band Sylvan Esso, we played in the last story in Progress and they wrote a song about it.
It's not. Totoo. Dividend's. Through the last stop to start. All space and stars and the brilliance machine. Composed of Saotome. Compression. Scale and Swades. Way, though, the. Is Constantine. It's not me watching the my first faster, faster until I keep on getting people burner, but. Mr.. Since. That was Sylvan Esso with Jamie's song, You Want to Talk Bang Hydrogen was there at zero hundred hours in the coke colored velodrome of dark matter.
Gas is checking gases ad infinitum. Shahd Truc FLER, then a deafening birth. Ion's of Cosmos, cartwheeling, pink, red, yellow, green, purple, blue, black. In the sphere of night firsts. I was a star then a stain of water, then a kindergartner.
These poems, by the way, come from two events that we held in New York City.
We Linta Emotive Fruition, which is a wonderful organization run by Thomas Dooley, who is himself a poet. He summoned poets from all around the metropolitan area and for two nights they came to the Bell House in Brooklyn Botanic Lab in Manhattan.
And so far we have heard Hydrogen by Sarah Solla, read by Ramsey for a gala, helium by Christine Canton.
I read by Janiece, Abbott, Pratt and I Carried Your Oxygen, a poem by David McGlocklin, read by Sam Breslin. Right. So next up, I'm going to give you three claps.
I don't know if you need that, but just. Just in case you couldn't get there, you got the TV guide. OK, so a while back we ended up talking to a guy named Derek Muller who makes a YouTube channel called Potassium Super Popular Channel by Science and Engineering.
And we called him because he's making a documentary about uranium.
And we got to talking about what happens when you take two protons and neutrons and you just whack put them together.
Yeah, it's absolutely nuts. And that led to this really interesting conversation about the beginning of all elements.
I mean, I feel like a little bit of back story is worth saying here. One really important thing to know is that combining nuclei gives you energy.
He says when you slam two particles together, they get squished and in the squishing they lose a little mass.
That mass gets emitted as energy. This is equals EMC squared. That's what's happening in the sun right now. So the sun is taking protons, individual protons and smashing them together, combining them. And that gives you energy. The energy of the sun there lost mass is the sunlight that we Basken. It was mass.
I have never thought of light as as former mass. Yeah, that's what a star does. He says it smashes little atoms like hydrogen together to make bigger atoms like helium and then bigger atoms like carbon, and then even bigger atoms like oxygen.
And every little collision its doing generates some energy which keeps the star going.
Stars live by this process of sticking nuclei together, going from smaller nuclei, making bigger nuclei. The heavier the star, the more the smashing and bashing they can do in their core and the bigger and bigger nuclei they can form.
But there are limits.
Six million years ago there was a star giant star way bigger than our sun and it was just doing its thing, taking atoms and smashing them together, combining taken hydrogen atoms and making helium, taken helium atoms in making carbon, making oxygen. And as it's smashing all these nuclei together, it's releasing energy and getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
But then there comes a point where sticking nuclei together no longer gives you energy.
In that point is element number 26 ion. Once you've formed iron, if you're a star, that's the end of life as you know it. Because Iron Iron is incredibly stable, one of the most stable nuclei in the universe, it's protons are tightly packed in there and so you can't force any more energy out of them, which means you have a core which is no longer going to give you energy. You can't cook up anything higher than than the iron.
That's it. But what happens to the star? Does it just become a big hunk? What happens is. Everything starts to collapse. Gravity takes over. That's the thing a star maintains its size by the fact that there's all this energy going out. So there's a dead iron core starts pulling everything back in. And at this point, all of that stuff which is headed inwards, aluminum, oxygen, carbon, magnesium, silicon starts rubbing against each other and it starts getting real hot and real dense.
And all of a sudden you get. The supernova. That was the most pathetic supernova explosion I was a part. Can you put in a sound effect to make the soundtrack to put in a much like that? It is actually our specialty.
So even though we know there are no sounds in space for the purposes of your enjoyment, we present to you.
This supernova. So here's the beauty of it, here's the beauty of the supernova in the ridiculous excesses of energy that are there in the supernova, right in that ridiculously huge explosion, the biggest in the universe. There is so much energy there that actually what happens is you form these nuclei, which would not form under any other conditions.
You know, iron hits carbon to form germanium, silicon hits oxygen to form titanium. You start to get all of these bigger elements, including like gold, including the gold in your wedding ring. They need that extreme, ridiculous, excessive energy to form. And then. It's done, and what are you left with, you're left with a giant field of debris, there's carbon, there's oxygen, there's iron, there's silicon, there's hydrogen, there's helium, and it starts to clump together due to gravity.
And the center of that which clumps together is our sun is mostly hydrogen and helium. And it's like 99 percent of all the mass in our solar system. And then the other chunks, other bits and pieces start to come together as well. They have a bit more angular momentum. So they're spinning around the outside. And those are your planets, decimals, your early planets.
And that is eventually how you get the Earth and all of us. This is where we. So you're saying this is the birth of everything past iron? Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I feel like idea, but I think I get it for the very first time. So post Supernova, like in the in the milliseconds post supernova, you have lots you have the whole periodic table hurtling through space. Yeah, you do. You really do. You can find Derek Muehler most days on his YouTube channel Veritas in his documentary Uranium Twisting the Dragon's Tail will soon appear on PBS.
It has already in fact, it is even already appeared on PBS. And for some crazy reason, it passed me by. Coming up, a story that will make you wish the Cold War wasn't over. Not me. Not me. I'm happy it's over.
This is Hester Fuller calling from the northeast kingdom of Vermont. Radiolab 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 W Dot Sloan Dog Science reporting on Radio Lab is supported in part by Science. Sandbox is Science Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.
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The Public Theater returns to immersive audio drama with a groundbreaking new take on Shakespeare's classic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. That directed by Sikkim Ali, Romeo Juliet. That is a bilingual Spanish and English production with Lupita Nyong'o in the role of Julietta opposite Quantcast.
Daniel ReMail What Light Through Yonder Windbreaks, Surgery and Juliet Soon.
Romeo and Juliet from the Public Theater and WNYC Studios is available wherever you get podcasts. Next up. Producer Molly Webster and Carmen. All right, OK. Got a luncheon? Yeah.
So science and yeah, this is my this is my new thing with my sisters.
I just always go hashtag science because they get really sick of me trying to teach the kids science lesson.
Hashtag science it.
OK, so one of the biggest mysteries in biology is how old am I?
That that doesn't seem like a mystery. Well, I mean, like, obviously I'm Molly Webster, who's 32 years old, who has lived, you know, through 32 birthdays, I guess. Yeah, but this is a question of like we know that some cells in our body regenerate. And so it's like, how old are those cells?
Like, how old is my heart right now?
Are like how old my eyeball are, how old is my nose, spleen and northwest corner of my kidney?
Is this like like, you know, if I'm three years old now, I'm 33 years old. The cells in the 33 year old, are they the same as any of them? The same as the one when I was three? Is that the question?
Yeah, that's one of the questions. Are any of them the same? If they're not the same, then how often do they change?
Because if you understand that, then you might be able to, like, solve injuries, help people heal faster or fix diseases where cells are, you know, messed up like psoriasis or anemia or ALS or something like that.
But also, it just seems so cool to be able to be like, oh, that chunk of my heart is from 1997 or that that other chunk of my heart is from 1983.
It's like, oh, I would love to know that at the party of Robert, I would want to meet the original Robertsdale. So if there's anybody who's been here since 1947, I'd love to just say hello. And if you just joined me in 2015, well, that's nice. I mean.
Right, it would be super cool. So one of the questions they've had for a long time is, is there a way that we can try to date cells? And so they're like, well, we can't really send anything into the body because that can be toxic. So the answer for a long time had been no.
And then 2002 ish, this little idea pops up.
And it's something called the bomb pulse, bombi bu and then Pulse P ULC, bomb pulse, yeah. To explain.
Five, four three two oh oh oh jobs in the 1940s and 50s. We all know this. We go around the way it is all us. We tested a lot of atomic bombs. Oh oh oh huge. The first test was in 1945 Trinity Test New Mexico. A few weeks later, the world will know that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We shall continue to use it to.
Then, as World War Two comes to an end, the rest of the world just tries to catch up to the U.S. to explode a huge bomb or simply make a to the Russians knew then after the Russians. Britain fires its first British. French, the whole Cold War basically just continues to unschool, all in all, over 400 atomic tests went off above ground between 19, 1945 and 1963.
Just imagine if only one atom bomb were to be dropped on an American city, thousands of persons would be killed instantly. That was just sucky time.
Well, hashtag science, there was one good thing, potentially one good thing popped out. And that is an answer to the question of how old are we that somehow came out of the bomb test.
Yeah. And how let me explain. Do it.
So with every one of those detonations, when atomic bomb goes off, it would shoot a whole bunch of stuff up into the atmosphere.
All of these like radioactive elements like cesium and plutonium and all these things.
But also that explosion shoots up a bunch of neutrons and the neutron will crash into nitrogen that's floating in our atmosphere and create C14.
It's a very special type of carbon. It has two extra particles in it. Now is all that bad. Radioactive stuff starts falling out of the atmosphere back to the ground. C14 doesn't fall out of the sky. It just sort of floats there. And what happened is over time, the wind currents carried C14 from these test sites and just spread it all over the planet and this C14, which is just totally like normal carbon, not harmful.
It just bonds with oxygen and it gets sucked up into plants. And then animals eat the plants and then we eat the animals or we eat the plants and then suddenly the C14 is in us.
So we all have like a little bit of the atomic age in us.
But I wasn't even born in 1963, so why would it be in me? That is the cool thing, because it hangs out in the air for a long time. So it's it's actually still up there.
But why does this have anything to do with dating anything? Yes, I'm about to tell you that. Hey there.
Hi. Yes, I am. Yeah, perfect. I'm Bruce Bucholtz. I'm a senior scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, U.A. Frisian professor of stem cell research at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
So in the early 2000s, yellowness is staring down this question of like, how do I date cells? And at a certain point he gets together with Bruce because he comes up with this idea, which is just, oh, maybe we just look up. So there there are some groups in Europe. There's one in particular that's been measuring the atmosphere every two weeks since the late 1950s, which is it's an incredible data record. Bruce says what the scientists have done is they've taken all of these measurements and they put them into one chart so you can see the amount of C14 in the atmosphere over time.
So we we have this basically basically a calendar. And I could I could send you a picture and see what see what the graph looks like.
Yeah. I'd love to see a picture. What you see on that graph is this according to Yoni's up to nineteen fifty five.
It's a pretty flat line with very little variation. But then suddenly in 1955, with all the bomb tests, there's a very sharp increase, a lot of carbon, 14, very dramatic increase. That's why they call it a pulse. And that increase goes all the way up to 1963 when the Kremlin portraits of communist doctrine is the setting of an historic event. When the US, the UK and the Soviet Union agree to stop exploding atomic bombs above ground testing of an atom test, then after that, there's a gradual decline.
And, you know, they're just measuring it all the way down so they can just say, oh, like here's where it was in 1980. Here's where it was in 1990, 2000, 2010.
This right here is the coolest part because the amount of C14 in the atmosphere at any given moment is directly reflected in our cells. Right. So if there's like. That much c14 in the atmosphere in September 1972, then that is.
Going to be mirrored in cells that were born in September 1972, so it is like this totally perfect birthday calendar, we can see approximately how long have they been there for 10 years or 20 years or 30 years.
Just like once this idea got out, like scientists all over the world were like, oh, yeah, oh, give me your attention.
There's been a new invention. It didn't take long to see that this might be something cool to do.
It came about because they made a big atomic bomb.
So just to give you a quick sense of some of the work that came out of this, I spoke to one scientist. I'm Christy Spalding and I work at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. She was working with the office and they figured out how to use C14 in brains. I mean, first of all, the basic question was, can adult humans make new neurons?
She says that for like 100 years, the dogma had always been that the neurons were born with other ones we die with.
The problem was she had no way to investigate this. She couldn't use it in humans even if they were dead humans, until she figured out a technique where she could, like, extract brain cells and see how much C14 was in there. Yeah, exactly.
And it turns out the next best thing to human is a horse, because horses can live for quite some years, decades. So every second Tuesday, I would go out to the local abattoir, the local slaughterhouse an hour away.
And I mean, I was a vegetarian surrounded by carcasses, and they would bring the horse's head out to me.
And I had to figure out how to get the brain out of its head when what you actually had to, like, cut open the skull and get to the brain yourself.
I mean, the second time I went, I took my boyfriend with me because it's like I can't do this physically.
They actually had a circular saw.
And I actually discovered that the skull, the bone across the top, the nose of the horses is quite thin. So that was a much easier access point. This is really gross discussion. Did you ever see your research going that way?
No, absolutely not. Not at all.
But what she saw when she finally moved her research from horse heads to humans was turnover.
We found quite robust levels of new neurons in adulthood.
I think. Why do I it once Jonas's team showed that this worked, scientists got excited and people started to date things and not just cells. Well, I believe so.
Can I tell the ages? Sure. OK, the baseline age is we knew before 14 was that skin was like 14 days old, 14 foot all.
That's only 14 days. Yeah.
So like two weeks, the surface level of your gut, the like the skin on your gut, I guess was five days, five days.
So that's even shorter than skin does. That's like the surface of the intestine or the surface of you. Yeah. The line, the lining that's.
Well that's because that's everything scraping all that food going down. So though that doesn't surprise me.
And then with c14 the the deeper, muscly part of the intestine, the average is fifteen point one years, fifteen point one years old.
Big difference point fifteen point nine, fifteen point nine years, eight point nine years.
Fat cells was another one that they did. 10 years old.
10 years old. Yeah. Interesting. Why would a fat cell need to last that long? Ten years.
Because it's perverse to talk to you. Yes. Well, I mean, so you've if they do they have any idea.
They don't know. Hmm. Do they know like what would be one of the oldest part of us.
Your, your cortex, which is like the part of your brain that does like abstract thinking or your voluntary movements.
That's as old as you are really. Huh.
So if you want to know one of the oldest parts of you, the oldest cell is probably in your sleep, I think part of your brain, it'll be like your cortical neuron.
Well, that fits if I think of myself as the stories I tell myself, like when you get Alzheimer's and you lose your stories and you lose your mind that people say.
But the interesting thing, though, is the hippocampus is where you keep all your memories. And they saw that your hippocampus does make a bunch of new neurons in the hippocampus that's known as free.
And again, an adult gets approximately fourteen hundred new hippocampal neurons per day. Really? Yeah.
And then each of those neurons will live like 20, maybe 30 years. So does that mean that the part of Robert's brain where he keeps the stories, he tells himself that part is being made new every 20 or 30 years?
Yeah, it's a strange thing that, like your oldest stories could be stored in baby little neurons and is weird.
Yeah, I remember going to Kyoto and it's like the oldest, most beautiful temple in Kyoto.
It has exactly the form that it had, you know, hundreds of years ago.
But when you walk in the the walls and the floors and the roofing and they've been restored, they've been restored actually over and over again, because in Japan, what they call old is the form. It's the shape of the building. Go to Athens, though, and you go up to the Acropolis and you stand in the Parthenon there. You're standing in the very temple that Pericles stood in. It's the same place, exactly same materials. So I can in Greece, they believe that the original stuff is the is what you preserve.
And in Japan, they don't. They think it's just the form and I was thinking of this thing you're doing is sort of a little bit like that.
Like I was thinking I'm much more Greek than I am Japanese because I want to know, like, what my original cells are if where they are in me.
Yeah, but my question is much more basic. It's like, why does part of me get to be reborn in the other parts of me don't like why not all of me get to be reborn because if all of you is being reborn, you would just crumble into dust no matter what is.
Only certain parts get to regenerate. It's interesting because they don't know. They said the next they said basically this question of how old is Acel? They said no one was asking. Everyone wondered this, but no one was asking this question because they never had the tools to ask it. So now they're just starting to ask those questions.
It's but there's a problem. This bomb pulse that we've been depended on in the last decade to start answering all these questions is going away really every day a little more that C14 gets sucked out of the air. So how much time do we have left? 15 years. It's gone by 20, 30, give or take. Yeah. So we need to get questions answered now because we really are working against the clock for many things we want to look at.
I talked to this Alzheimer's researcher who was trying to figure out like the chronology of the disease, like when certain like pathologies form in the brain. And he was kind of just like, I just wish I had a little more time.
And when I think about this, like I was thinking about this on the subway this morning, like I was looking around and I was thinking, you know, I'm on the L train. It's a bunch of like 30 year old kids or something. And I was like these in there all reading or something, drinking their expensive lattes. I'm like, these people are so far away from thinking about the Cold War or atomic bombs or anything like that. And they're all walking around with, like the secret signal from the atomic period inside of them.
And then that little signal is like banging out like knowledge about their shoulder and their elbow in their liver in the west side of the liver and the east side of the river and like different parts of their heart and the fact that it's now going away and how, like someone born in twenty, forty two is just going to be really boring and like, you know, they're not going to have any insights into who they are.
Sort of makes me inclined to very peacefully want to.
Explode another atomic bomb. What? No, no, no, no. Why you forget all the poisons, that that is not a benign event. That's sort of an experimental picker upper.
That is extra extra stuff on the air.
Kill my dream. I have to kill your dream. What about some dumb dream?
We don't have. Some people wanted you to start. The. You want to jump the gun on the don't make telephone pole, then no man knows his power. Oh my God alone. Oh then it can't cure the sick, destroy the evil with one sweep of power. Oh, no. And by God. Oh, Lord. Producer Molly Webster and special thanks to Henrik Drouet and Mark Lovel, happy Valentine's Day, magnesium. I go blind watching you burn magnesium.
Iodine is cute the way it sublimates. And yes, I'll put lithium in water to watch it scoot about, but my heart belongs to you.
Magnesium, the hot white flame, the abandon, the slowness of you becoming your own few's mercury is beautiful. Yes, but it's you magnesium. The way you burn for me, the way you leave nothing of yourself behind. We are flying over Greenland, your elbow is so close to mine on the airplane armrest down there, they are excavating uranium from beneath the Arctic ice and selling indiscriminately, though from here I can only see the weight of ice sheets in glacier topped mountains.
This is an island of fishing rigs and colorful houses, cod and catfish, stew and tomato cream. Once I thought every isotope in me is radioactive. I make the people who love me sick. This is a teenage way of thinking. But you have uncovered a glowing spark in the pristine frozen places with me. That was uranium from poet Emily Hockaday, read by Johannes Abbott Pratt and before that, Happy Valentine's Day Magnesium by Jason Shneiderman, performed by Sam Breslin.
Right. Everybody has a middle name in the sticks, right? Yeah, OK. Coming up, we're going to get into an elevator, push the button and go down and I mean all the way down.
I'm Robert Krulwich, Jad Abumrad. And we'll continue in a moment.
Hi, this is Pilar Castro from Bogota, Colombia, lobby 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 w w w that's long story which has got.
Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich is Radiolab and today. Skin elements, we're doing it, we're doing it, there's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium and hydrogen and oxygen and hydrogen and rhenium and nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium and iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium europium, iconium, lutetia, vanadium and lanthanum a.m. and astatine and radium and gold protectionism and indium and gallium and iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.
Satirist Tom Lehrer. There's a tree in the chaabi imagining a little bit in the bottom. Gadolinium, niobium, iridium and strontium and silicon and silver and samarium in business. Bromine, lithium, beryllium and barium. OK, so we have this periodic table of elements, which is a list of the simplest bits of matter that we know of. And so theoretically, everything that we see, everything that we are, is made of the stuff that is in that table.
That's sort of the beauty of the periodic table that it describes everything, right?
Yeah, yeah. About forty five years ago, a scientist named Veera Reuben was studying the motion of the galaxies and how the galaxies just spin that beautiful way around, like in spirals. And her calculations did not explain why the galaxies were holding together. And she figured there's got to be some stuff that I can't see around the galaxies that explain why they moved the way they do.
What is that stuff? Whatever it is, it's not interacting with the matter of our world hardly at all. Otherwise, we'd see it.
It's indeed why we call it dark. Dark matter is the dominant matter component in the universe. That's experimental physicist Rick Gaitskell, that the stuff you and I made of the, you know, these conventional protons, it's the flotsam and jetsam of the matter world. It's it's cast on a sea of dark matter. We're talking about in terms of the total composition of the universe, you and I, the stuff we're made of is four and a half percent.
The other ninety five point five percent is this stuff, the dark matter, dark energy, which theoretically is all around us. If you keep your hands, you have a dark matter particle in your hand. The problem or the challenge is that it is so weakly interacting that it will pass straight through you.
And in fact, will pass straight through the earth there and will have very little probability of interacting. But what if you can get one of these little bastards to interact? Then I mean, forget the periodic table, then you would meet the most fundamental element of them all, city is lead historic hometown. We're going to tell you about an experiment now in this bizarre experiment. And we sent our producers, Andy Miles and Damien Marchetti, to check it out right here.
You think this is happening in South Dakota, in the Black Hills, in this little town called Lead? And I have not seen this many trees in so long.
Incredibly beautiful, picturesque little town, but right near the town as you crossed over this hill.
That's it. That's a deep cut. You'll see this mountain that looks like it's just been torn open. No, we, uh, we pulled over and we walked over to the edge of this thing and it was like peering down into an ancient volcano. That's not what I thought it would look like. Carved out that hill in this town.
There is one of the deepest manmade holes on the planet. That's where the experiment is. And it's there because way down deep in that hole, it's demonstrably the quietest place in the universe.
That is Kent Myers. He's a writer. The quietest thing will make sense in a second.
He wrote an article in Harper's Magazine recently that is all about this experiment and this whole I was interested in the idea of of these frontiers at the, you know, the frontier.
Where are you from, Frontier? I'm from Minnesota. Oh, there you go. People tell me I sound like I'm from the movie Fargo.
Well, let me join them anyway.
Kent says that this story, it starts off way back in the old West, a frontier wild, rugged 1870 for General Custer and crew.
Custer comes out looking for this gold and finds it gold. On the mountain, in the rivers and in the dark, depths are below the surface of the earth. And just like that, 10000 people within two years are just invading, illegally invading the Black Hills, which were of the Great Sioux Reservation. And by 19 one, the miners blast a thousand five hundred feet down by nineteen twenty seven three thousand five hundred feet down by nineteen seventy five.
It's eight thousand feet deep. To put that into perspective, that's a sort of mile and a half, but usually a mile and a half. They literally move mountains.
Oh, it's immense. Imagine six Empire State buildings going straight down and gold.
Is that valuable that you could put that kind of effort in? Isn't that astonishing?
But what happened is that eventually the price of gold dropped to the point where the size of the mine was just unsustainable.
Well, when you're mining 8000 feet down, you know, for every foot you go down, your price increases, your costs increase. You've got to haul it further. You've got to airconditioned the mine.
You've got to pump out the groundwater. You have to run electrical lines down there.
And so in 2001, after one hundred and twenty six years of being in operation, the mine shut down. Did it create a ghost town? I mean.
Well, this is the fear. This was the fear that we were just going to have the whole the whole economy of this part of the country was going to fall apart.
But as this was happening, we saw an opportunity that these physicists realized that this was a golden opportunity well before. I don't like how I do physics to ferment the physicist because they love holds tradition.
Yeah, they're just in love with horns. They just like dwarves. This is where we get to that idea of quiet. This experiment, it needs a kind of quiet that you cannot find on the surface of the earth. When you and I are sitting on the surface of the Earth, we're not acutely aware of it. But we are being hit by cosmic rays at a rate that I think really rather amazes people. If you simply hold your hand out three or four times a second, cosmic ray is going through your hand and it's going right through it.
And that's every second. So your your body is literally bathed in thousands of these every second.
We are just being bombarded with a dense. Rick Gaitskell talks about it like being in the middle of a stadium during the Super Bowl and. This is as though everybody in this arena is clapping. Now, just imagine that in the middle of all this chaos, there is one person leaning over to their friend and whispering a secret into their ear. Dark matter is like the whisper. It'll be lost in the noise. We have to cut out all this noise in order to even come close to hearing it.
And. It turns out putting a mile of rock between you and the clappers is taking you a lot of the way that. Yes, a great sound.
So Rick took us into this mind through these massive iron doors down these.
Long underground tunnels into a room where we met this guy.
What's your name and who are you?
Mike Souness grew up in Lead, South Dakota. I'm the fourth generation that's been hanging around the Homestake mine. Mike worked at the mine. So did his dad.
Both my grandfathers were Homestake veterans.
Most kids that Mike went to school with and his dad went to school with, they worked at the mines. And my grandmother's father on my dad's side was also a miner.
But now now he works in a room where he basically equipped scientists with all their safety gear and stuff. He gave us these boots and a respirator on fire. Do you want to be able to breathe if you want to hear it and eventually.
Come on, that's the climate.
This old steel service elevator a little further south of the forty one lower south cage and then we just start rocketing downward, going so fast. The speed at which we're moving is sort of equivalent to the speed at which an airplane often, you know, when it's descending at a thousand feet, our ears pop. Two thousand feet, this sort of wet, muddy smell sort of wafts up. And as we're dropping, all that noise is getting slowly filtered out, we're able to literally use the rock to absorb these cosmic ray particles.
After about 10 minutes, the elevator stops. Well, thank you, guys. Thank you. And we step out four thousand eight hundred and fifty feet down. This is a cave, man. It looks like a cave. It's got a dome like ceiling and walls that are just carved rock. So what does that sound? It's water. That's the sound of rain coming through a whole lot of rock because it's not raining outside. It's not raining in the world.
It's just ground water. According to camp, it's costing over a million dollars a year just to run the pumps to drain that water. So that gives you some a million dollars a year. Yeah, but Rick says down here, like, this is the least amount of radiation that we will ever experience in our lives. It is quite dramatic. It's about three million less cosmic rays. So when you hold your hand out less than one every few months.
Jan, coming through your hand now. March. But that isn't that isn't the end of the story. So we're going to step inside here, the very first step. We're actually even having the other.
It turns out that even if you cut out all the raise coming from the outside, there are still rays coming off of us.
You and I, we carry a certain amount of uranium and thorium, these radioactive elements in us. So.
OK, so what we're going to do is you're going to take your coveralls. Saw a woman named Robin Baalen made us change clothes. So can you take that machine out? Yeah.
Scrubbed our stuff. Oh, the microphone. I'm going to wipe this. OK. Yeah. And then Rick takes us into the lab where the experiment happens.
It's this all white room with this huge tank in the middle.
The tank contains 70000 gallons of high purity water and was directly inside it. And we can without fear of disrupting experiment, one can experiment actually happens inside this day, can bang the outside of a steel container.
The whole idea is that this water will actually filter out even more radiation.
That makes it very quiet, but still it's not quite enough.
And so inside that tank of water, they put an even smaller tank of the element xenon, about a third of a ton of liquid xenon.
Where do we find xenon on the periodic table where xenon is number of 54, 54. It's over on the right hand side. So that that we have this imperially named set of elements we call the noble element.
I mean, they're just too good for everybody else. They interact hardly at all. That's right.
You really struggle to make xenon interact with within the other atoms, which is just another way of saying that inside of this tank of xenon, which is inside of this tank of water, which is down in one of the biggest holes ever dug by man, it is really, really, really, really, really quiet.
It's demonstrably the quietest place in the universe. I mean, you can't you don't know that it is because there could be somewhere, some quieter place.
But as far as we know, the the center of this lux detector is the the quietest place that we human beings know of and what's supposed to happen inside this super quiet xenon space.
So the idea that you have here is that this cloud of xenon, it's just waiting.
And the thought is that when a dark matter particle, that's like zooming around all the time when that zooms through this xenon because it is so quiet in there, because there is nothing else happening in there, that dark matter particle, even though it's not supposed to interact with anything from our world, that particle, if it disturbs, if it nudges in any way any of the atoms of the xenon will notice it.
And that tiny little disturbance, whenever it happens, Can says you can think of that moment as the universe whispering to us the whisper in human nature, the whisper is a point where we really when we really want to speak intently to a single person, we whisper when when we whisper at funerals, we whisper in the presence of awesome things in nature.
We we you know, it's that it's that reduced use of the voice that drops down and drops down to only goes into the ear it's intended for. It's it's Isaiah's call, you know, he's lying on his mat and he hears the whisper because he knows that's for me alone. That is for me alone. And that's that's that sense. That this experiment gives to me is that here the universe has been shouting and shouting and shouting and shouting at us, and we've gathered all this scientific knowledge out of the shout, out of the clapping, out of the cheers.
And now where we're at in the 21st century is is we're we're going down to what's it saying? In the whisper and those whispers go clear back to conception, they were clear back to. If we understand these whispers, we're very close to understanding gestation and I got carried away there, but oh, we love it really?
Yeah, OK. And did you get to hear the whisper, see the disturbance, whatever it is. Did you meet the dark matter?
Well, how can I give this to you lately? OK, so this is confession time. I've I've been looking for dark matter for 27 years and so far we have yet to see a convincing set of interactions that associate with this dark matter. And that's that. Nothing at all.
Yeah, nothing. But Rick hasn't given up hope. I mean, he sort of never gives up hope. I mean, he says maybe we just need to build a bigger, more sensitive detector.
That's, of course, exactly what we're doing instead of their current one, which has a third of a ton of zino.
And we are now designing and building a detector that's going to be 10 tons.
This is it says even there, who knows? The uncertainty we have to deal with is is is at least a factor of 10 million.
Yeah. Ten thousand and 40. The other one pretty disappointing thing is that when you're in this room, like in the room with the lux detector, that's supposed to be the quietest place in the universe. It's loud. It's crazy loud. There are sounds that I can only describe as robots dying. And listen to this. Was there any moment that was quiet, like quiet, quiet, like deep, quiet, fairly quiet? Well. Sort of after we we went to the luks, we had some time to kill and they took us into the wrong part of the mine where they used to mine for gold and they just sort of walked us through these tunnels.
Scared a little bit. Yeah. And you're you're walking through the black and all you hear is like the sound of actually crunching. The wind is being sucked down. It's kind of rushing through the tunnel. So, yes. And it's the silence, it's it's not like it's not like the science of like, oh, the street is really quiet outside of my bedroom. It's got like an energy to it. It's like it's got like this and.
It's kind of like when you're running and when you stop running and the absence of your exertion sort of fills you, yeah, it's like that moment where the absence of the noise sort of becomes palpable. And that's for me, the moment not standing in the laboratory, for me, that moment was the moment where I'm like now I am standing at the center of this scene on. I don't think I ever, ever have felt that before. Producer Damiana Marchetti and Andy Mills, we have had Damiana with us for almost a year and it's been a total pleasure.
He's moving on, but we wish him. What do you like to wish him and wish him quiet? But the good kind of quiet, you know, the kind that has energy. Oh, that's nice. You know, the world won't back. Yeah. Thank you, Damiano. Huge thanks to Thomas Dooley. We had original music this hour from one three point never. Sylvan Esso, Kevin Drum, Ken Campden and Vijay Iyer. Thanks also to Matt Kappus and to Connie Walter and to the folks at Sanford Underground Research Facility for letting us visit them and stay and stay and ask so many questions and finally leave.
Yeah, which is what we're about to do. I'm Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Thanks for listening. Message to new, this is Jamie Lavis is Myers. Hey, this is Derek Muller calling to read the credits. And I just wanted to do this because I think all these people's names are awesome. I mean, tell me you've done a great. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad. Our staff includes Reena O'Farrill, Ellen or David Gable, Alan Keyes, Matt Keelty, Andy Melva, Tiff Bouser, Kelsey Padget, Adrian Whack, Molly Webster and Sean Wheeler and Jamie York.
Who are these people? It sounds like a crime fighting team. You know, when you got the Kelsey Padget and Darren Wheeler with help from Simon Adler, Kathy to Molly McBride, Jacobson and Alexandra Lee are fact checkers, are Keva Gocher showing her? I mean, tell me those aren't cool names, even Dasher. I just love these names. Anyway, thank you so much for having me on the show. And I don't know if you guys have time for it, but it didn't checked out very fast.
You might just want to go check that out. The element of truth. All right. And this message.
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