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Listener supported WNYC Studios. Wait, you're OK? All right, you're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Hello, I'm Lulu Miller. This is Radiolab, and today, Boom-Boom. Oh, hello. Hi.


A story from producer Annie McKewon from her bathroom.


And I feel like straddling the bathtub. Here's the thing. I did yoga last night.


I do think our thing is like underwater mysteries from the 90s. Yes. OK, so today I have a story. It's like a Tom Clancy international underwater spy thriller. But the little spicy science thrown in.


All right. I am grabbing my popcorn. Take me away. Yeah. OK, let's begin with you.


OK, thank you. Magnus. Magnus, not Rome. Yeah. How do you pronounce your last name?


It depends on where you come from. So most Americans would say Wolberg or Wolberg or something like that. Yeah. What do you say? Well, that's also depends. In Sweden, it's Volberding.


Oh wow. But in Denmark it becomes a bit more like Bilbao or something. Wow.


Yeah, OK. Anyway, Magnis is an associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark, where he studies underwater sound. Yeah. So let's start off in 1981. Yes. Well, let's go back to that time. Yeah. So that's where you're how old.


Yes, I was 13 years old. I was living in Stockholm, the the capital of Sweden.


And it was an extremely tense period because in Stockholm, you know, we have the Baltic Sea right in front of us.


There was only about one hundred and forty miles of water separating Sweden from the Soviet Union.


And Megan said to him and a lot of other Swedes, there was just this fear of what was on the other side of the water.


I remember this still in the school. You know, you had a map, you could see all the details, the Western Europe, small towns, all these roads, the colors of different countries.


And then across the Baltic, it was just white. There was just nothing, and that was Soviet Union.


We didn't really know even what was there, just this mysterious nothingness. Yeah, and not very far away.


Now, Magnus says it's important to know that Sweden has this kind of island politically because Sweden was neutral, but because of a lot of this mystery, a fear of communism, there was always the sense that one of their greatest threats was the Soviet Union, that we heard about it all the time.


We were even practicing a little bit in school, and we were really living in a time when we were worrying about a nuclear war almost daily.


So 1981, the defining year, it's late October when it gets really dark here, you know, and and cold, and it's about 4:00 in the morning, pitch black.


A fisherman leaves his home, gets in his boat and heads off to check his nets. Sweden has this like super long coastline that's filled with these really complex inlets full of islands.


There are rocks like granite islands everywhere.


And just as the sun is starting to come up, this fisherman makes his way into one of these rocky inlets and all of a sudden out of the darkness looming up out of the water right in front of them.


There is this big Russian sub standing there. It's huge, it's like this long, almost Bulleit, dark bullet in the water, and it is like towering out of the sea, just sitting there, it's insane.


What was it doing there, exactly? What was he doing there?


So the fisherman called the Navy and we all woke up to the news that he would be.


On the street, Soviet submarine beached on Sweden's shores. It's a huge story, like all the papers write about it and everyone is like, what on earth is going on?


So the military comes down if their helicopters circling overhead, many, many boats.


But at this time, Sweden was people would also say we were incredibly naive because we didn't have any wars for the last war was like I was like, yeah, it was like Napoleon Wars. We didn't really were involved in anything.


So Magnus said the military sent some guys out to the submarine. And, you know, we kind of knocked on the door of the submarine, but they knocked on the side of the subs.


I don't know if they knocked, but, you know, they kind of asked kindly, can we come in and have a look? And they said, no, no, of course not. Know? And then they said, oh, OK, sorry about that. But some some there were some clever physicists. They parked a small boat beside of the sub and threw some clever measurements. They could measure that there were nuclear weapons inside.


Oh, scary. You know, we have these defining moments for a nation in the states. You have like the Kennedy murder, the 9/11. And, you know, and this is one of those four suites. And people started immediately to say, hey, this is war like we are in war. And eventually because, again, maybe we were too soft.


What happened is that the commander of the Soviet sub told the Swedish military that all of their navigation instruments on board had malfunctioned all at once.


Sort of sorry. We navigated wrongly.


You know, we lost our way. We ran ashore like we made a mistake. Yeah.


So the Swedish military sent a bunch of ships out to the sub, pulled it off the bottom, and they, you know, returned it to international waters and it left.


OK, and for a 13 year old Magnus, it was super weird because you could see that adults and the politicians, everyone were. Completely, I have to say, like taken with their pants down, right there was like what? Like no one could, of course, explain this.


So the Navy, of course, they got a lot of money. So they became more vigilant. They had to now start to see if they could, you know, could they protect the Swedish coasts? And, you know, it's not an easy thing to do.


It's a huge coastline, over a thousand miles. So how do you like patrol that?


An obvious way to do that is with sound. Forget ships and sonar sounds propagate very well on the water.


We're just going to listen for the subs. Yeah. Does that mean they like they hung hydrophones on buoys out in the water all along the coast?


Like just. Yeah, well, not everywhere of course, but he started to listen into this more carefully after this. All the politicians promised us that now we have bought all these gears and now we are ready to tackle this problem and no problem. And then we went into sleep again.


And then in October, eighty two, we had the next wake up call, this time in this big harbor, very close to Stockholm, right outside of a Swedish naval base. People started to see periscopes one after another after another after another popping up out of the water in the Swedish military was like, we have detected them and we have them.


So this time, the Swedes send in a bunch of ships with nets, these big metal nets that they use to block the exits of the harbor, so there's no way a big sailboat can get out. And then they send in a bunch of helicopters that have hydrophones and they dip those hydrophones into the water.


And they start listening for submarines. And before long, one of those hydrophones would pick up the unmistakable sound. Of Soviet sub. And what does that sound like? I'm going to get to that, but what happened is when the Swedes heard this sound, they would drop a bomb from the helicopter that would hit the water sink down to a predetermined depth.


And then the big explosion and the helicopters and the ships, they would just wait to see if the explosion would like would damage or scare one of these Soviet subs up to the surface.


And so they waited. And waited. And nothing no Soviet sub emerged, not even a piece of one, and the Swedish military kept this up for a month, chasing down subs here, dropping bombs, and by the end of the month, nothing comes of it. They don't capture a single submarine.


What I know isn't that they did. They just did they somehow get out of the barricade?


They don't know. They don't know. I mean, I guess they could even be down there today. They could have hurt the sub. The sub fell the sub, you know, filled with water, like they could be down at the bottom of the harbor. I guess these are just this is just a huge harbor. And they just couldn't really find any evidence of any Soviet sub.


Yeah, it just ended in nothing. And then things started to get more and more bizarre. So through the nineteen eighties, every half a year, every year, we would have these submarine chases. All of a sudden somewhere on the coast, the military would give an alarm, oh, there is a sub and then you would have these helicopters bombs, nothing really. And then six months would pass once it was right outside the Royal Castle in Stockholm.


Were people getting like annoyed? Come on. Kind of a little bit, or are people still very afraid?


I think, you know, the Cold War is still going on. Magnus said there was just this fear that is coming to the Russian day is coming.


We just have to spend more money to to find them.


Were they still seeing periscopes? Yeah. So that's what these are. What were they hearing and seeing?


So so they started to ask people if anyone sees something you should report to call this number or call the Swedish military. And they got tons of calls, many thousands of observations. But then then the problem is, it's just like in on a crime scene. If you ask people to say what they saw, it's a long structure sticking up from the water. So is that a periscope or is it a boat? Could be a small whale. It could be a sub, but who knows?


So what the Swedish military did is they came up with this ranking system for observations. And one end you had rank six.


Six says that we cannot tell. No one else could be anything. OK, and then you have like rank one is a definite sub, definitely a sub.


OK, now the thing is for a rank one, definitely a Soviet sub.


Pretty much every time in the report it said we heard the typical sound, the typical sound. We heard a typical sound.


What is a typical sound? So when so the typical sound is basically when like when the Swedes were sure that they were encountering a Soviet sub, those hydrophones in the water would always pick up this particular sound. It was called the typical sound because it was believed to be the sound that you just like a typical Soviet sub would make. Huh?


And so anytime the Swedish military encountered that sound was automatically giving a one, it meant that encounter was one hundred percent a sub. And then we go and do we know what that sounds like? Well, not yet, because it's classified. Yeah.


No one could listen to the sound and no one could knew what it was. But all the phones were picking up this.


They were picking up the typical sound for years. Yeah.


The Swedish military kept hearing this secret Soviet sub sound in their waters. So then the strange thing happened in nineteen eighty nine.


Everything is changing. Thousands and thousands of West Germans come to make the point that the wall has suddenly become irrelevant.


The Iron Curtain falls, the Berlin Wall falls, everything opened up. And all of a sudden over one night, basically the world changed for us.


Changes were just sweeping across this continent. Something unreal for me. All these places that have been almost impossible to go to, we're all open.


It's as if that white blank space on the map was starting to actually get some color and shapes and names. But while all of this is going on, something very weird is happening because the Swedish military is continuing to report hearing the sounds of Russian submarines invading their waters 20, 30 incidents every year.


And Magna said by 1994, at that time, we had the prime minister, Carl Bildt, and he got so upset about this, he wrote a very angry letter to Boris Yeltsin saying, now you really have to stop. Now you have created your own country. And the first thing you do is to try to occupy Sweden or sick of this stop. But Boris Yeltsin's like, I don't know what you're talking about, Yeltsin said, well, we are of course not there we don't.


So you can see all our shops are on land. What are you talking about? You're crazy.


He denies everything. So as this whole mystery is unfolding, Magnus is watching from the sidelines. And by 1996, at that time, I was a university student.


He's studying underwater biological sounds.


Oh, and I got a job in the fishery department because my mentor, he was sort of the he was called Hawk and Vestberg. He still is. He's still around.


Yeah, that's true. That's Hokkien, retired oceanographer and fisheries biologist.


I started with telemetry, acoustic tracking in the 70s, and he was one of the few in Sweden who really was an authority on underwater biological sounds.


And one day Magnus is standing in Hawkin's office.


I was quite fresh on my job when the phone on Hawkin's desk rang. He was not there. So I just took I just took his phone and they they just answered the phone on his desk.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. But we had a very we had a very collegial relationship. Yeah.


And on the other end of the line, it's the Royal Swedish Navy calling. They said they wanted to talk to my boss, of course, but then because he wasn't there, they started to talk to me and they said, well, they are forming this committee, this top secret government investigation, and they would like me and my boss to be part of that.


So they say, yes, there's a background check. Yeah, I'm cleared by the secret police.


They were very secretive and then he and Harken are on a train to Stockholm for this huge naval base.


It's just like in a James Bond movie, you have a whole submarine base inside rocks.


Wait, what? You can sort of open the rocks and you go in there with your boats and you can have. How do you open the rock inside?


Yeah, I don't know. Do you have some big, you know, rock in the works or something like that. Yeah. Yeah, something like that.


So we went in there and, you know, so Magnus and Hokkien, who are not totally sure why they're there, are winding their way through this military base, long tunnels.


Two Navy captains were our liason.


Yeah. And eventually you come into this meeting room with all these electronic, you know, gadgets, a lot of recording equipment.


You have a world map and they can follow the whole world from in there.


Kind of like mission control at NASA's. It was super exciting. Finally, they take their seats at a long table and sitting there around the table are a bunch of other academic types like them.


But there are also some very high ranking military people. So it was really like, wow, moment for me. And we were sitting down there and then they said, well, ladies and gentlemen, you are the first several people who are listen to the sounds, the typical sound, this famous sound.


And so now we will actually play the typical sound for you. So it's been top secret for the last 15, 15 years. For 15 years. Yeah. No one has been no one outside the military was able or allowed to listen to it. Wow.


So were you excited? Extremely. Of course. This was like, wow.


Now, what Magnus said he expected to hear was something like Bing Bing, you know, but he'd heard in the movies, you know, these movies when they said, oh, yeah.


And so I was thinking, there must be something like that.


Right. But then one of the Navy officers turns to a tape recorder and hits play. And this is what comes out. Huh? God, is it? Are they picking up voices are like radio static. That's always what it sounds like. Yeah, this is the sound they've been recording every year since that first shut up.


It's intriguing. It sounds a bit like a few Donald Ducks at the very long distance. What do you mean? Well, you know, like, Donald Duck is kind of his voice.


If you imagine you had like 10 Donald Ducks and they would be maybe like 100 meters away or so. I think it would be something like that.


And it also sounds a bit like an old shoe that kind of gets stuck or has this kind of squeaky part to it.


And then we are sitting there with all these generals and there are playing this sound. Did you look around the room at the table of scientists and military guys while everyone is sitting there and, you know, all these professors, they were kind of stiff upper lip, so they were just sitting there and listening kind of carefully. But my my my boss, he's more like he's a very relaxed guy, you know?


I think we looked at each other with a very confused gaze, but we were kind of keeping a stiff face also.


Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. You got to play. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So after they played the sound, the naval officers turned to the scientists and say basically, OK, now that you've heard the typical sound, we'd like each of you to try to figure out who or what is making it to get to the bottom of what is typical sound was about.


And even in that moment, sitting at the table, Hawking and Magnus turned to each other and they don't say anything, but they're both thinking, what?


This is very strange. This is definitely not the stop. Don't, don't, don't. After the break, Magnus and Haken follow their intuition deep into a cloud of mystery and they get to the bottom of it.


Oh, they get right up close to the bottom of the mystery. Radiolab will be back in just a second. Stay with us. Hello, this is Erin Schorno, currently located in Arlington, Texas. 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 w w that phone dog science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science.


Sandbox is Science Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.


America was founded as an experiment in democracy, and that experiment with all its contradictions, false starts and demands for something better is at a crossroads. Our new weekly show called The Experiment explores the surprising beauty and absurdity that happened. When America's big ideals collide with Americans everyday lives, find the experiment from the Atlantic and WNYC Studios on Apple podcasts. Radiolab, Lulu, any military crises trying to be averted by biologists, so after the meeting, Magnus and Hawking are standing outside studying.


They're having a cigaret talking about the sound. It sounds a bit like a popping sounds.


The sound when you fry bacon in both of them thought that this must be a biological sound.


But what I don't remember saying to Hawken, air bubbles. This sounds like air bubbles.


If you think of a scuba diver who gets whole pinched in his one of his pockets, God forbid, like an air bubble stream coming out of a hose, it sounds a bit like that.


So the question is like which animal releases air under the water? And we have kind of this hunch.


Yeah, yeah. Now, incredibly, you can actually find this, I'm in New York City, but it helps to have a car. And a friend, so I called up producer Matt Kielty, who's a friend with a car, you have a bucket, and I also brought a large bucket of ridiculous bucket.


OK, so, OK, I only told Matt we were driving to the Hudson River.


That was it. OK, so we're taking the bridge.


We drove through Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge.


OK, so now that is your car. This is a couple. It's my one cup holders.


I drove up Manhattan up to the riverfront.


We can sneak and look for parking for a while if I could park along while the red light. How many fire hydrants do you need on one block? It's a red light. Oh my God. That's a spot. I Riverside. We're on Riverside Drive. OK, let's pull up here. This is not going to work. Well, how long are we going to be here? I don't know. We need to wander around a bit. I don't even know what we're doing.


I look at the parking lot. Are you OK? Can you just. What are you looking for?


What what. What was a hunch? Yes. OK, OK. So we got down to the rocky shoreline of the Hudson River.


There is a piece of a dead fish that might be a whole fish where we found it. Herring, Harry, herring, fish.


I think that evening we were like, let's try herring. Can we get down?


So for reasons that will become clear very soon, I, I tried to buy herring, but you can't buy fresh herring in New York City in December. And so I dragged Matt out to the Hudson River because I had read in an article that herring fish have been washing up dead on the shores of the Hudson and nobody really knows why. It could be pollution, it could be water temperature, but still unclear exactly why that happened.


But you know what you're looking for.


Like what exactly does a herring look like? Oh, OK. Yeah.


So I'm going to pick it up. That is the question. I picked up this dead when we found this. Put my hands around it.


Oh, and very slippery herring. Are you pig? I don't know. Maybe ten inches. Pig dead fish shiny.


They are the silver of the oceans. There are all these reflections from their scales.


They just kind of look like it's like if a kid drew a fish, it would be this fish. Yeah, but the really important thing about a hearing, the whole reason why Magnus and Hucking had this hunch is because of what is going on inside of a hearing.


Now, Lou, I know you've written a whole book about why fish should not be called fish, but have you ever wondered how does a fish just float around in the water?


I don't think I have actually wondered that let me go ahead and tell you so it turns out in most fish they have this thing called the swim bladder, the swim bladder, the swim bladder, which is basically this tiny sack filled with gas that regulates the fish's buoyancy, similar to the buoyancy tank of a submarine.


So if you're a fish and you want to go up or down in the water column, you do this by either pulling air into your swim bladder sac or pushing it out. And most fish do this through their bloodstream and their gills, which means it's quiet, silent, like basically invisible. But not the hearing. The hearing is different. Yeah, the hearing is special because they have a canal straight from the swim bladder to the anal opening.


So when a hearing needs to get air out of its swim bladder, it basically pushes it through this canal. I just put into the water.


And Magnus says when this happens, you will have this sort of small string of air bubbles, which he had a hunch might just sound like bubbles coming out of a hose under water. Yeah. So he his guess is like this submarine sound is actually just. Bubbles that come out there, but, oh, so his guess is fish farts. Yeah, look, technically, these are not FART'S because they do not come from like digestive gases, OK?


But this makes me feel better. I feel like I can continue to engage with this story.


Are you looking for something? I'm just very grossed out by them, guy. Like, I just I do not know. Well, how you.


Why are you, like, even saying the word makes me like I'm like I don't want to be in this space even linguistically, let alone a aeromedical.


This is like, wow, that's so interesting. I wouldn't. How are you not because they're the funniest thing in the world, because they're they're a thing we all do. If we can't, that's upsetting. They make you feel better immediately. Like even animals, like find them funny. Kind of. I don't know. They're just they're wonderful.


They they connect this. Oh, they connect us all.


OK, hey, I am your I just appreciate the meaning you draw while also being simultaneously relieved. These are not actual farts. Carry on.


OK, so Hakin and Magnis, they now had their like fish fart theory, but now they needed to figure out did the fish fart actually sound like the submarine sound? And we approach that rather crudely.


Basically, Magnus went to a fish shop, bought a couple of drinks that were dead, went to the lab, rigged up the hydrophone.


OK, you and then Magnus took this herring, submerged it underwater and I squeezed it.


It's so weird to squeeze a fish, though. It's very weird, but I squeezed it pretty hard. I don't think anything is coming out. And he just kept squeezing it.


He was like, kind of. Oh, what is it?


I mean, if it was like a really big blur of, you know, hearing poo and things coming out, I'm sorry.


OK, toss them over here. So then you want to squeeze one hucking tribe, you should get this feeling.


It's a weird feeling. Maybe this will be the lucky. Get the magic touch. I got them fart fingers.


He put the herring in the water, squeeze the gentle, gently squeezing, gently gentle and then.


Oh, I didn't bubbles. Bubbles.


It was a tiny little bubble. OK, that's that's good.


You do it for two fingers and then you would hear this kind of very eerie poppy sound is kind of the perfect typical sound we thought. Turns out they thought wrong because when they look at the recording of the fish fart compared to the recording of the sub sound, they just they don't really match. Absolutely not.


This is just very depressing. But I mean, this is a dead fish in an aquarium.


So then they went out into a bay with this little tube connected to a vacuum pump. I don't know. I managed to get a wild herring America to fart. Yeah. That sound didn't match. No, but then they had this thought. We need to get more realistic here. We need to get out into the wild because herring aren't solo fish. They travel together in schools. These schools can be huge, like a square kilometer.


Like sometimes we're talking billions of fish all traveling together. And so they thought if we're right about this, the sound we're looking for isn't the sound of one fish farting. It's the sound of a lot of fish farting. So, like, a lot. A lot, yes.


And, you know, we were working for the fishery science in Sweden, so we knew a lot of fishermen. And and and they would tell us when herring goes into nets, they get stressed and the net starts boiling.


They say, whoa. So Magnus follows this clue onto a boat and out to a fishing trap beneath him and the shadow of the boat.


He could see thousands of herring just swimming around down there and put the hydrophone in the water and.


Victory, the typical song, Y'all, Y'all The Whole Box was just singing of these songs, it was just incredible.


It was just this cacophony of herring.


Wow. Their findings were harder for some members of the Navy than others to accept. I mean, there were people that their whole career was chasing submarines.


But finally, in 1999, it became official. The typical sound that had haunted the Swedish Navy for over a decade was not made by Soviet submarines. Instead, for over a decade, the Swedish Navy had been straining their ears to hear the sound of thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of herring, all farting together.


OK, so that was the end of the typical soap. Man, I just can't believe, like you guys so quickly had all these ideas, but why did the military not think for 15 years, like, are there no scientists in the military that would that would have any of your experience are like, why was it?


Yes, I think I think they didn't have the know how. And the other thing is this whole thing of the military having this culture that you keep things secret, which means that it's very hard to have like an open and it's very top down. So it's very hard to have an open discussion about, like a scientific discussion going on around these topics. I mean, now I make it sound like they are very different from the rest of us. But in a way, there are just human beings.


And you can easily wind yourself up in some kind of explanation. If you have a few authorities telling you how things are, you can easily start to collect evidence that that must be how it was.


Magnus told me that the Swedish military actually used sonar to investigate this sound and what they saw on the screen in front of them was that sound coming from an object.


And then they would watch that object split apart, divided into two O and then divided into four, and then it could go back into one again.


Whoa. And now we can guess that what they were probably seeing was a school of herring splitting apart, splitting apart again, but at the time.


This was a Soviet sub, so they must have thought this subs are like super high tech. Exactly. They had people investigating. How can it be that Russia can build a sub that can still be decomposed into two and to four and then back? No way. You have, like military scientist sitting and trying to build a model of a Russian stop that can sort of disintegrate into four. I mean, it doesn't make any sense, but it's amazing.


I think this is something to look after all our time so that you can you can always laugh at it and say how wrong they were, but I wonder what people will think about us in 20 years.


Oh, I think about that all the time. Yeah, but what is the fish part of today exactly? There's just one more little thing that I take away from this story, because as I was doing research, I learned that Herring have just been fished forever. Yeah, like really fished all these Scandinavian countries.


They were built on herring, basically. It's been what people have been eating and fishing for for thousands of years.


Right. And not just that, like cities have been founded on it. Cultures have been founded on it. Millions have been made. And these fish have just been like running for their lives for millennia.


Yeah. And it's like in this one moment or in this one decade or period of time, like herrings just got back humans in some way and like sort of gave them a wild goose chase, you know. Yeah. And just one they had the power in the upper hand.


They played an important part of our a country's foreign policy. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's it's almost like in the end this story is just a very long winded fart joke on us humans.


Yeah, exactly. It is. That's what it is. When did you see what you did there? McKewon This very long winded fart joke was bravely reported by Annie McKewon and beautifully produced by Matt Kielty. Annie McKewon and Sakari with Sound Design by Jeremy Bloom reporting in translation help from Magnus Almstead. Huge thanks to Ben Wilson, who's done his own fascinating research into the hearing. Toot's and to Allatoona under Hans Gordon, Andreas Tomstad Class Hammerson and Meg both catch you on the flip.


France may your sanity stay intact and your wind broken.


But we've got the gold. I mean it's in the thumbs. Was supposed to be the classic. Hi this is Sam calling from London, England. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and edited by Saurian Wheeler, Liuba Miller and lots of Noster. Our co-host Gilinsky is our director of Sound Design. Susie Lichtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Rebecca Bressler, Rachel Kucik, David Gabal, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Sara Corey, Ariane Black, Pat Walters and Molly Webster with help from Cima Olia, Sarah Stanback and Johnny Mountain.


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