Jun 15, 2009

Stochasticity

Stochasticity (a wonderfully slippery and smarty-pants word for randomness), may be at the very foundation of our lives. To understand how big a role it plays, we look at chance and patterns in sports, lottery tickets, and even the cells in our own body.

Along the way, we talk to a woman suddenly consumed by a frenzied gambling addiction, meet two friends whose meeting seems to defy pure chance, and take a close look at some very noisy bacteria.

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Robert Krulwich: Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by LinkedIn, presenting Hello Monday. A new podcast from LinkedIn's editorial team about how we're changing work, and how work is changing us. Every week host Jessie Hemple brings you candid conversation from the front lines of LinkedIn's new offices. Find Hello Monday on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by IBM. 16 million new collar jobs will be created by 2024. IBM's new education model gives high school students workplace experience and an Associates Degree. 90 P-tech schools are preparing graduates for tomorrow's STEM careers. Let's put smart to work and find out how at IBM.com/Ptech.

Speaker 2: You're listening to Radiolab, from Public Radio WNYC and NPR.

Laura Buxton: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: I'm going to start the show today with a truly remarkable story. Which at least initially involves this girl right here.

Laura Buxton: Hello I'm Laura Buxton.

Jad Abumrad: Laura Buxton is her name, remember that name.

Laura Buxton: We should turn my hair back.

Jad Abumrad: Laura let's do this like a movie okay?

Laura Buxton: Like a movie?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Laura Buxton: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: Okay it's June 2001.

Laura Buxton: Yeah?

Jad Abumrad: Where are we? Oh, we're in a little town in Northern England called ...

Laura Buxton: Stock on Trent.

Robert Krulwich: Stock on Trent?

Jad Abumrad: Yep. Imagine a little English house in this town, and the camera zooms in and there standing in the front lawn is little Laura Buxton. She is 10 years old.

Laura Buxton: Yeah, well almost 10.

Jad Abumrad: Whatever. She's a tall girl.

Laura Buxton: Pretty tall for my age.

Jad Abumrad: Pigtails, and in her hand she's holding a balloon, a red balloon. You with me so far?

Robert Krulwich: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, so earlier that day Laura had taken a little card and stuck it to the balloon, and on one side written-

Laura Buxton: My name.

Jad Abumrad: Plus a little message.

Laura Buxton: It just said, "Please return to Laura Buxton," and then on the other side it had my address.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, so cut back to the outdoor scene. There she is standing on the lawn.

Laura Buxton: It was very windy.

Jad Abumrad: She's got this red balloon with her name on it, and she holds it up to the sky, to the heavens.

Laura Buxton: I just let it go, and the wind took it. We were laughing and joking because we just thought it would get stuck in a tree a bit further down the road somewhere.

Jad Abumrad: That's not what happened. The balloon kept going. All right, now I'm looking at a map here of England and Stock on Trent is at the top.

Laura Buxton: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: So the balloon would've had to go south, down, down, down past Stratford.

Laura Buxton: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: Past Wassail.

Laura Buxton: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: Past Wolverhampton, then bast Birmingham-

Laura Buxton: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: ... past Kidderminster, past Worcester.

Laura Buxton: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Past millions of people. Past Shettingham.

Laura Buxton: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: People with different lives, different names. Past Gloucester-

Laura Buxton: Gloucester.

Jad Abumrad: ... Gloucester and all in all the red balloon goes about 140 miles south.

Laura Buxton: Exactly against the prevailing wind.

Jad Abumrad: Oh really?

Laura Buxton: Which is a south westerly.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, so finally when this balloon is all the way on the other side of the country, it begins to descend. Down, down, down, and of all the places it could have landed, in a river, in a factory parking lot, in the sea, instead the balloon touches down in the yard of this girl.

Laura Buxton: I live in the countryside in a little village called Milton Lilborne.

Jad Abumrad: Just so you're not confused this is a different girl than the first one. They do sound the same, but they live on opposite ends of the country.

Laura Buxton: The balloon got stuck in our hedge, but our next door neighbor found it. He thought it was just a bit of rubbish and he collected it up so the cows wouldn't eat it, because he didn't want the cows to choke on the rubbish. He was about to put it in the bin, literally and then he saw the label saying, "Please send back to Laura Buxton." He was like, oh my God.

Robert Krulwich: Why? Why would he say oh my God?

Jad Abumrad: Okay, so check this out.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Remember how I told you how the first girl who sent the balloon was 10?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: The second girl, who received it-

Laura Buxton: I'm 10 years old.

Jad Abumrad: She's ten, okay.

Robert Krulwich: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: Wait, wait there's more.

Robert Krulwich: There better be.

Jad Abumrad: Remember how I told you the first girls name was Laura Buxton?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Well girl number two can you introduce yourself?

Laura Buxton: Okay. Hi, I'm Laura Buxton.

Robert Krulwich: What? They're both Laura Buxton?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: No.

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: Both named Laura Buxton?

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: Get out.

Jad Abumrad: You heard me right. A 10 year old girl, name Laura Buxton, let's go of a balloon. That balloon floats 140 miles and lands in the yard of a 10 year old girl named Laura Buxton.

Robert Krulwich: Is this for real?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah. I think it might be the strangest thing I've ever heard in my life.

Laura Buxton: It's pretty weird.

Jad Abumrad: Been about eight years since the balloon incident, and Laura's see each other a lot. We managed to get them both into a studio.

Speaker 6: Hello New York, this is London can you hear me?

Laura Buxton: So like we're going to hear Americans through these?

Laura Buxton: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, back to the story.

Laura Buxton: Yeah I got the balloon.

Jad Abumrad: That's Laura number two.

What did you think at that point?

Laura Buxton: Well, I was quite young so I didn't really know what to think. I was just like I better write the letter because there's someone else out there called Laura Buxton. I must see them.

Jad Abumrad: So Laura number two wrote a letter to Laura number one.

Laura Buxton: Dear Laura, I think I put. I'm 10 years old, and I live in Wilton. I found your balloon, and the thing is that my name is Laura Buxton as well. So, lots of love from Laura Buxton.

Jad Abumrad: Laura number one.

Laura Buxton: Yeah?

Jad Abumrad: You get the note-

Laura Buxton: Got it through the post.

Jad Abumrad: You remember reading it?

Laura Buxton: I remember reading it because I sort of opened it up whilst I was in the kitchen. It was really quite confusing actually. It was like to Laura Buxton from Laura Buxton. I took it up to my mom, and we stood there arguing about it for quite a while.

Jad Abumrad: What did you argue about?

Laura Buxton: Well she was trying to tell me that it had come to Laura Buxton, and it wasn't from Laura Buxton. She just thought I was confused.

Jad Abumrad: Okay fast forward a short while later, the two Laura's meet. It was at one of England's most popular TV shows, Richard and Judy. They'd found out about the Laura Laura coincidence, invited them on, and here the story gets even stranger. There's Laura number two standing back stage ...

Laura Buxton: Around the corridor I saw this girl who looked pretty similar to me.

Jad Abumrad: First thing she notices is wow we're the same height.

Laura Buxton: Skinny and tall.

Jad Abumrad: Got the same color hair.

Laura Buxton: Brownish hair.

Jad Abumrad: Were even wearing the exact same clothes.

Laura Buxton: Pink jumpers and jeans.

Laura Buxton: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: So you both had on pink jumpers and jeans?

Laura Buxton: Yeah.

Laura Buxton: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: As they started to talk, it just kept getting weirder.

Laura Buxton: Well we've both got a three year old black Labrador.

Laura Buxton: We've both got a gray rabbit.

Laura Buxton: We've both got Guinea pigs.

Robert Krulwich: Really?

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, yeah, and they both brought their Guinea pigs with them that day.

Laura Buxton: I remember Laura took hers out of its cage and I had mine on my lap, and we were like oh my God. They were identical.

Laura Buxton: They were both brown with a sort of beige orange patch on their bum, like completely the same.

Laura Buxton: I was just like oh my gosh how is this happening?

Jad Abumrad: Do you believe in miracles? Either of you?

Laura Buxton: I don't know would you call this a miracle?

Laura Buxton: I'm not sure. I mean I guess it could be, but I think it's more of a case of fate.

Laura Buxton: Yeah, I'd say it's more fate than a miracle.

Jad Abumrad: So you don't think that wind that blew the balloon was just wind?

Laura Buxton: Well if it was just wind it was a very, very lucky wind. The chance is just so unlikely. There must be some kind of reason.

Robert Krulwich: What kind of reason?

Laura Buxton: Well maybe we were meant to meet. I don't know.

Jad Abumrad: But meant by whom, or what?

Laura Buxton: who knows really.

Laura Buxton: Yeah. I mean only time will tell.

Laura Buxton: Yeah.

Laura Buxton: It could actually be like preparing us for something else later in life, who knows.

Laura Buxton: Right, when we're old grannies.

Laura Buxton: We'll find out.

Laura Buxton: Now we're just young, and we're just enjoying the ride.

Robert Krulwich: Oh Jad. I mean what are you ... Look what you're ... You know what you are?

Jad Abumrad: What?

Robert Krulwich: You're a destiny bully. No because-

Jad Abumrad: What'd you call me? A destinies bully?

Robert Krulwich: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: Sounds like a pop band, or something.

Robert Krulwich: No, it's what you're doing to those girls.

Jad Abumrad: No I wasn't trying to force God on them if that's what you mean.

Robert Krulwich: Yes, you're the one who says oh whose behind-

Jad Abumrad: No I was trying to get to the question of how should we think about that story.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Is our world full of magic and meaning, and coolness, or is it all just chance.

Robert Krulwich: In fact, that's what we're going to do for this whole hour of Radio Lab. We're going to discuss the role that chance plays in so many things.

Jad Abumrad: In the lottery, in the flipping of coins, and deepest of all, you.

Robert Krulwich: Us.

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: On Radio Lab.

Jad Abumrad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwhich.

Jad Abumrad: We're about to get random so stay with us.

Robert Krulwich: So let's start with a very basic question.

Jad Abumrad: Let's.

Robert Krulwich: Random sounds like it means random, that is anything can happen at the next turn of the wheel.

Jad Abumrad: Like your phone ringing for example.

Robert Krulwich: Oh God.

Jad Abumrad: Random.

Robert Krulwich: Sorry.

Jad Abumrad: Although it's happened so many times that it's no longer random. It's completely predictable.

Robert Krulwich: But it does have a very nice kind of lilt to it, don't you think? I'm going to sing with it now. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program. So let's say that something remarkable happens ...

Jad Abumrad: Like the Laura's.

Robert Krulwich: Like the Laura's. Can you tell whether this is just the random act of an indifferent universe or is there something truly miraculous and wonderful about it.

Jad Abumrad: Excellent question.

Robert Krulwich: Thank you very much.

Deborah Nolland: Hello.

Soren Wheeler: Hey we found you.

Deborah Nolland: You found me.

Soren Wheeler: So this is Jad.

Jad Abumrad: Hi.

Deborah Nolland: Hi Jad.

Jad Abumrad: Hi very nice to meet you.

Soren Wheeler: And this is Robert.

Robert Krulwich: Hi.

Deborah Nolland: I'm Deborah Nolland. I'm a professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jad Abumrad: The reason we'd come to see Deb Nolland at Berkeley is because we'd heard that she plays this game.

Deborah Nolland: I like to incorporate lots of classroom activities and demos.

Jad Abumrad: One in particular has to do with randomness.

Robert Krulwich: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: It's a game that helps her students understand what real randomness actually looks like, and it doesn't look like what you would think. In any case, she takes us into her classroom, us and a few students.

Robert Krulwich: She sits us down. We all sit down.

Should we sit in a semi circle?

Deborah Nolland: That sounds good.

Jad Abumrad: Then she explains.

Deborah Nolland: Okay, I'm going to divide the group up into two. I'm going to divide it right here.

Jad Abumrad: She splits up so that group one had three of her students.

Joe Chang: I'm Joe Chang.

Richard LiYang: Richard Li Yang.

Margaret Taob: Margaret Taob.

Jad Abumrad: In group two, Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: Is us.

Deborah Nolland: The group here-

Robert Krulwich: She's pointing at us.

Deborah Nolland: ... I'm going to give you a penny, and I'm going to ask you to flip the coin 100 times. The three of you-

Robert Krulwich: She points to her students.

Deborah Nolland: ... your job is to pretend to flip a coin.

Jad Abumrad: Meaning they just have to flip the coin in their heads, kind of guess.

Deborah Nolland: How do you think that coin might land? Produce 100 fake coin flips.

Robert Krulwich: And then Deb leaves the room. So her students start whipping through their imaginary, fake flips.

Joe Chang: Tails.

Richard LiYang: Tails.

Margaret Taob: Heads.

Joe Chang: Tails.

Margaret Taob: Tails.

Richard LiYang: Heads.

Margaret Taob: Tails.

Richard LiYang: Heads.

Margaret Taob: How many is that?

Robert Krulwich: While we actually flip the coin 100 times.

Jad Abumrad: Heads.

Robert Krulwich: Heads.

Jad Abumrad: Tails.

Robert Krulwich: Tails.

Jad Abumrad: Tails.

Robert Krulwich: Tails.

Jad Abumrad: Tails. Heads. Tails, tails, heads, tails. This is exhausting.

Robert Krulwich: Eventually we did finish and both groups then put our strings of H and T's up right there on the black board.

Joe Chang: Tails, tails, heads, heads, tails. Whew.

Robert Krulwich: Then Deb came back.

Deborah Nolland: Hello. Here they are huh. Let's take a look.

Jad Abumrad: Okay so on the board you've got two sets of H's and T's, which look pretty much the same, to us.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative), but she looked at their list-

Jad Abumrad: The fakers.

Robert Krulwich: ... and then she looked at our list and right away she says, pointing at our list.

Deborah Nolland: This is the real one.

Jad Abumrad: We were like, wow. How did she do that? Well amazingly the way she knew, had to do with one particular moment.

Robert Krulwich: Right. Roll the tape back, to a moment right at the beginning of our coin flip.

Jad Abumrad: Tails.

Robert Krulwich: Yep.

Margaret Taob: Tails.

Jad Abumrad: Tails.

Margaret Taob: Heads.

Jad Abumrad: Tails, three in a row.

Robert Krulwich: What was that thing, is that what they have?

Jad Abumrad: Another tails.

Robert Krulwich: Oh.

Jad Abumrad: I feel like we have way too many tails.

Robert Krulwich: Seven tails in a row.

Jad Abumrad: It was really spooky.

Robert Krulwich: Completely.

Jad Abumrad: Like at any moment a unicorn was going to come galloping in. That's how weird it was.

Robert Krulwich: But as magical and un random as it felt to us.

Jad Abumrad: That's how she knew that we were the real flippers.

Deborah Nolland: As soon as I saw the seven tails, and then I looked over to the other board and there weren't any longer than four, I think.

Jad Abumrad: That's how she knew. When we asked one of the guys on the other team, "Why didn't you put more streaks in your flips?" Well he said what I think we'd all say.

Richard LiYang: I was thinking if we did that too much, maybe she would recognize that we were actually doing that on purpose.

Jad Abumrad: In other words, those streaks just feel wrong, and that's the thing about randomness, real randomness when you see it just doesn't feel random enough.

Robert Krulwich: But, says Deb, the truth is ...

Deborah Nolland: Strange things do happen by chance.

Robert Krulwich: But why is it so hard for us to emotionally accept this? Well, it finally made sense to us when we spoke to this guy.

Jay Kohler: Hi Jad, Hi Robert.

Robert Krulwich: That's Jay Kohler.

Jay Kohler: I'm a professor of finance, and professor of law at Arizona State University.

Jad Abumrad: So here's how the epiphany happened, we were explaining to Jay the unicorn experience in Deb's classroom.

Robert Krulwich: We got one tail, then we got a second, then we got a third.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: Then we a seventh.

Jad Abumrad: And somewhere in the conversation we started to do the math. Like okay, what actually are the odds?

Jay Kohler: Let me see, was it heads in a row, or tails in a row?

Robert Krulwich: Tails.

Jay Kohler: Seven tails in a row. That's one half raised to the seventh power.

Jad Abumrad: So we started to do the calculations, and at first it looked pretty good.

Jay Kohler: .oo, a little more than 1%.

Jad Abumrad: Just over 1% chance.

Jay Kohler: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: So, it seemed at first that what had happened in Deb's class was super unlikely.

Robert Krulwich: Right.

Jad Abumrad: But then, Soren our producer.

Robert Krulwich: Soren.

Jad Abumrad: Had to go and say this.

Soren Wheeler: You know to be fair you should tell him that you actually flipped the coin 100 times.

Jay Kohler: Oh now you ... wait, wait, did you ... You were holding back on me.

Robert Krulwich: Wait, wait we're too stupid to know that. That's why we have Soren here.

Jay Kohler: Are you saying that somewhere in the 100 flips you got a run of seven.

Robert Krulwich: That's what we're saying.

Jay Kohler: That's not a particularly good coincidence. I'm sorry to burst the bubble.

Jad Abumrad: What do you mean? Then Jay explained it to us. If you're just doing seven flips, then yeah getting seven in a row is really unlikely, but if you're doing multiple sets of seven ...

Jay Kohler: 14 of those sets of seven ...

Jad Abumrad: which we were because we were doing 100. Then the probabilities start to add up, and start small like 1%, but then that one becomes two, which becomes four, which becomes eight, until when it's all said and done the chances of getting seven tails in a row somewhere in a set of 100 is ... Don't hold your breath.

Jay Kohler: About one in six chance.

Jad Abumrad: One in six, that's it.

Jay Kohler: That you would have gotten a string of seven.

Jad Abumrad: So what felt spooky and almost Twilight Zone-ish in the moment is actually-

Robert Krulwich: It's not that improbable.

Jad Abumrad: Oh.

Robert Krulwich: See, that's what you don't want to know. It doesn't confirm your goosebumps.

Jad Abumrad: No I think the goosebumps are dead now.

Jay Kohler: Oh, I'm sorry to do that. I still enjoy life.

Jad Abumrad: The problem, says Jay, that we were so focused on those seven flips in a row, that we had forgotten about the other 93 that weren't seven in a row. We'd forgotten about what he calls the background. We were too zoomed in.

Jay Kohler: So you've got to back the camera up, and pan around and look at the complete sample space.

Jad Abumrad: When you do that, he says, what you will realize is the thing that felt so special ...

Jay Kohler: Suddenly you see that it's not so odd in its real context.

Jad Abumrad: This sad lesson goes way beyond coins. He gave us this example.

Jay Kohler: In 1985 and 1986, Evelyn Adams of New Jersey wins the lottery twice.

Jad Abumrad: Back to back years, crazily improbable right?

Robert Krulwich: Right.

Jad Abumrad: If you zoom in, all the way in, there she is Evelyn Adams, standing outside of a convenience store somewhere in New Jersey.

Speaker 13: I just won it again. I just won the lottery for a second time.

Jad Abumrad: She is completely blown away, for good reason.

Jay Kohler: The odds that those two particular tickets would become wining lottery tickets are one in 17.3 trillion.

Jad Abumrad: Wow. But, Jay would say, if you pan the camera back away from Evelyn. Bye Evelyn. If you look at the whole world of people buying lottery tickets at this vantage point you can begin to ask a different question.

Jay Kohler: What are the odds that somebody somewhere-

Jad Abumrad: Somebody somewhere-

Jay Kohler: ... will win the lottery twice. In fact, the answer to that is it would be very surprising if it didn't happen repeatedly, and it has happened repeatedly.

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Robert Krulwich: For instance ...

Jay Kohler: In Connecticut employees of a place called the Shuttle Meadow Country Club, they won twice. The man in Pennsylvania, he won twice a few years later. In California a retiree won a fantasy five, and the super lotto in the same day.

Jad Abumrad: What?

Jay Kohler: The odds of that were calculated one in 23.5 trillion.

Jad Abumrad: That's trillion with a T.

Jay Kohler: One way I think to think about his whole thing, I think one example that sort of brings it all home, at least it did for me when I thought about the blade in the grass paradox. The golfer hits the ball down the fairway and the ball lands on a particular blade of grass. If the blade of grass could talk, the blade of grass would say wow.

Speaker 14: Oh my God.

Jay Kohler: What are the odds-

Speaker 14: What are the odds.

Jay Kohler: ... that that ball out of all the billions of blades of grass ...

Speaker 14: And we went to the right, left ... On me, it lands on me.

Jay Kohler: How did it come to be that it just landed on me?

Speaker 14: I don't know. It's sort of like a miracle really.

Jay Kohler: It is sort of miraculous, but what we know is that it was going to land on some blade of grass somewhere so it's nearly 100% chance that some blade of grass was going to say wow what are the odds that that ball was going to land on me.

Robert Krulwich: If I were that blade of grass I'd feel so special, and chosen.

Soren Wheeler: And crushed.

Robert Krulwich: And crushed.

Jad Abumrad: Soren. The real lesson here, according to Jay Kohler and also Deb Nollan before him, is that if you don't see past yourself you fall prey to superstition.

Deborah Nolland: Right, or magical thinking. You have to be careful that you're not finding meaning here when it's just coincidence.

Jad Abumrad: There are some things, like the Laura's, that will never feel like just coincidence.

Laura Buxton: Well if it was just wind, it was a very, very lucky wind.

Robert Krulwich: So we had to ask Jay.

I ask you sir, is this a miracle.

Jay Kohler: This is not a miracle. It's a good story, but you know there's lots of little things I could pick at in the story.

Jad Abumrad: Like what?

Robert Krulwich: Oh yeah, pick away.

Jay Kohler: Well, I mean if Laura Buxton didn't find the balloon, somebody else who knew a Laura Buxton found the balloon. You selected out the features that match, and trust me somebody checked to see if she was an identical twin. So no, no that's not a good one, skip the twin. Okay, how many brothers and sisters, oh not the same number but skip that. Ah, they both have a rabbit let's put that one in the story.

Jad Abumrad: To be totally honest he's right.

Robert Krulwich: What? What do you mean?

Jad Abumrad: Well when I was interviewing the Laura's I asked them a bunch of questions, kind of scouting for similarities.

What's your favorite color, both of you?

Laura Buxton: Blue.

Laura Buxton: Pink.

Jad Abumrad: Scrap that. What do you guys study in school?

Laura Buxton: Biology.

Laura Buxton: Chemistry and geography.

Laura Buxton: Whereas I'm doing English and History in classical civilization.

Jad Abumrad: Hmm, scrap that.

Jay Kohler: What people do is they try to make the story better by showing more similarities.

Jad Abumrad: So you're saying that somebody, I couldn't imagine who, doctored the story?

Jay Kohler: By the way I don't want to spoil anything, and this is a trivial comment but I believe that one of the girls was actually nine.

Laura Buxton: Well, almost 10.

Jay Kohler: And the other one was 10.

Jad Abumrad: Darn it. No.

Robert Krulwich: Oh well that's a story for a ... Nevermind.

Jay Kohler: Yeah, I'm sorry to be your most depressing guest.

Jad Abumrad: Nonetheless I will continue to tell the Laura story every chance I get on the air, at parties, wherever because you know damn the statistics, it just makes me feel good.

Robert Krulwich: I think Jay would agree with you.

Jay Kohler: Well, first of all we love stories that connects us. It gives us insight into our own lives, and I think it also gives us a feeling that life is magical.

Jad Abumrad: Maybe we don't have to call it magic to enjoy the experience. In fact, I was talking to the Laura's and I asked them, what if a statistician were to walk in the room right now and say to you, "This was bound to happen. Statistically this was going to happen sometime, to someone."

Laura Buxton: That's fair enough really, because it just happens to be us in those statistics so ...

Laura Buxton: Yeah. I mean if that's what the statistician thinks. I mean, yeah, fair game to him.

Jad Abumrad: They don't really care. The way they see it whatever it was in that wind, whether it was fate or just wind, it doesn't matter. It brought them together, and now they're friends.

Robert Krulwich: Radio Lab will continue in a moment.

Laura Buxton: Hello, my name is Laura Buxton. Radio Lab is funded in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation.

Jay Kohler: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Science Foundation.

Laura Buxton: Radio Lab is produced by WNYC and distributed by National Public Radio. Thank you, bye.

Speaker 15: Hi, this is Ashley Harding from Saint Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. Radio Lab is supported by what the constitution means to me, on Broadway, starting March 14th for 12 weeks only. Named the number one play of the year by the New Yorker, and New York Magazine, this boundary breaking new play breathes new life into our founding document, and imagines how it will shape the next generation of American women. The New York Times says it's shrewd, crazy funny and shattering, and Rolling Stone calls it bracing and strikingly relevant. What the constitution means to me, written by Obe award winner Heidi Shrek. Get tickets now at constitutionbroadway.com.

Robert Krulwich: Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radio Lab is supported by Zip Recruiter. I don't know if you know anything about Zip Recruiter. Let's suppose you need to recruit somebody for your business, for your office. You could, I guess, ask friends. You could put an ad out for everybody in the world to read. Zip Recruiter's idea is they have what they call a matching technology that presumably finds the right people for you, and then goes and gets them to apply. Right now Radio Lab listeners can try Zip Recruiter for free at ZipRecruiter.com/Radiolab. Once again, that's ZipRecruiter.com/Radiolab.

Speaker 16: Hi, this is Ira Plato host of the weekly public radio show Science Friday. We are excited to be coming to BAM in Brooklyn for a special live edition of our show with a special topic, the secret science-y lives of city pigeons. I know you've always wondered about that, plus you can enjoy music, live demonstrations, and a lot more. So, join us Saturday, April 27th for one night only. Details and tickets at bam.org/sciencefriday. Saturday, April 27th.

Jad Abumrad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich, and we are talking on Radio Lab about things stochastic.

Jad Abumrad: Like coin flips and lottery tickets and-

Robert Krulwich: Well, let's just push this whole argument another step forward if we may.

Jad Abumrad: What do you mean?

Robert Krulwich: Let's talk about human beings. Would it surprise you Jad if I told you that one the subject of predictability humans and coins are kind of similar?

Jad Abumrad: It wouldn't surprise me because I wouldn't believe it.

Robert Krulwich: You would believe it if I made you an argument so powerful and so astonishing that you would be falling back on your butt in surprise, and staring at me with the kind of simple admiration that you rarely have. Because here it is, I'm going to talk to you about basketball.

Jad Abumrad: Basketball?

Robert Krulwich: That is a sport where people-

Jad Abumrad: First of all, A, what do you know about basketball?

Robert Krulwich: I mean-

Jad Abumrad: Basketball is a game of skill, don't even try and pretend that there is random forces like coin flips ... No.

Robert Krulwich: Well let-

Jad Abumrad: No. Nope.

Robert Krulwich: Let me-

Jad Abumrad: Zip. No.

Robert Krulwich: Let me make you an argument.

Jad Abumrad: No.

Robert Krulwich: Let me make you an argument. Let's just take, to make it really interesting, the most skilled basketball team ever.

Jonah Leer: For example, you could take a look at the '82 to '83 76ers.

Speaker 18: The Philadelphia 76ers, Maurice Cheeks-

Robert Krulwich: That's Jonah Leer, regular on our show.

Jonah Leer: It's one of the best NBA games of all time.

Speaker 18: Ramon to Cheeks, Cheeks to Dr J, swooping it underneath putting it up and in.

Jonah Leer: So during the playoffs the 76ers were all incredibly hot.

Robert Krulwich: Take my man Andrew Tony, an outside shooter for the 76ers. During this run, he was ...

Jonah Leer: Sometimes Andrew Tony would make five shots in a row. He would be considered hot.

Robert Krulwich: So that's the deal. Andrew hits his mark once, hits his mark twice, hits his mark three times, now I'm going to pass to him because he's obviously hot.

Jonah Leer: The basket looks to him that it's the size of a soccer goal.

Robert Krulwich: He's golden, he's got the gods on his side.

Jad Abumrad: Why are we talking about them?

Robert Krulwich: Well because in this situation, you would have to agree that Andrew Tony was hot, right?

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: That's the word. So let me ask, what exactly do you mean when you say hot?

Jad Abumrad: Why are you asking me-

Robert Krulwich: Because-

Jad Abumrad: Because he's making a bunch of shots in a row, and if you're on his team and you're coming down the court you pass the ball to Andrew because he's on a roll.

Jonah Leer: What the fan assumes is that after five shots is that he's more likely to make a sixth shot.

Jad Abumrad: That to me just seems like common sense. If he's making lots of buckets of course you're going pass it to him. How could that be wrong?

Robert Krulwich: And did the players assume this? Obviously they're going to pass, right?

Jonah Leer: Oh, the players all believe this.

Robert Krulwich: The coaches believe this too?

Jonah Leer: The coaches believe it, so it actually dictates the plays they call. Everyone assumes it to be true that the hot hand is a real thing and dictates the flow of basketball games.

Robert Krulwich: Thank you Jonah. But ...

Jonah Leer: The hot hand doesn't exist.

Jad Abumrad: What? Did you just ... You just went through this whole rigamarole about the 76ers being hot.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah well they were a great team, but a lot of scientists have looked at this question of hotness in sports. In fact, there's a couple of scientists who actually looked at all of the made shots and the missed shots of this 76ers team. When they looked directly at the numbers, emotions aside, just the data here's what they found:

Jonah Leer: At the very moment you think you're hottest you're actually freezing cold.

Jad Abumrad: Wait. That can't be right.

Jonah Leer: Some of these percentages are pretty damning.

Robert Krulwich: Take Andrew Tony, during the regular season Tony made 46% of his shots.

Jonah Leer: 46%.

Robert Krulwich: After hitting three shots in a row, which means he's in the zone, he's totally there, his field goal percentage drops to 34%. That's what I'm saying. That's what I'm telling you Jad Abumrad. I've got the numbers here.

Jonah Leer: The reason seems to be is that Andrew knows he's hot, or he thinks he's hot, so he's taking less responsible shots. He's taking the three point jumper from way beyond the arc, and he assumes his streak will somehow save him.

Jad Abumrad: No, that cannot be, because Jonah you've ... You've been to basketball games. You see what happens. Someone hits-

Robert Krulwich: I've been to basketball games too. All right.

Jad Abumrad: You've been to games and you've seen that someone makes three shots in a row, the crowd gets up, suddenly there's an electricity in the air. Every time the guy gets the ball everyone stands up in anticipation. You're telling me that's all a figment of our collective imagination?

Jonah Leer: It is a figment of our collective imaginations, and it's especially a figment of the way we kind of calculate streaks. The reason Andrew seems so hot is because he makes three, misses the fourth, makes the fifth, misses the sixth, makes the seventh and eighth. We write that essentially random process, this mixture of makes and misses, we rewrite it in terms of, oh it's a streak. Once we think he's hot we tend to edit what actually happens too kind of preserve that sense of the streak.

Robert Krulwich: Okay, don't believe Jonah. What about Jay Kohler our statistician from Arizona State. Listen to him.

Jay Kohler: I have no reason to think even if whether he missed seven in a row, or made seven in a row, or made three of his last four. I don't really care, I know that he's a machine. He's like a 52% shooting machine, or whatever his number is.

Jad Abumrad: No but he's a-

Jay Kohler: And-

Jad Abumrad: He's not a machine though, he's a person with confidence that ebbs and flows, there's a difference. There's got to be a difference there.

Jay Kohler: I agree with you. You've just described the psychological theory that makes the hot hand belief so compelling, and so hard to get rid of with data. It just doesn't matter whether the player made three or missed three, their probability of making that fourth shot, that next one I pretty much the same.

Jad Abumrad: This is very, very depressing. Essentially what you're saying is that basketball players are like-

Robert Krulwich: Coins.

Jad Abumrad: ... coins.

Jay Kohler: Yes. Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: The fact is, Jad, you are and Kobe Bryant even is more like a coin than any of us had dared to imagine.

Jad Abumrad: No.

Robert Krulwich: Kobe has a pattern, in his case it's what 64.

Jad Abumrad: Shh, stop it.

Robert Krulwich: On any given night with Kobe you think oh this is ... He's spectacular, but all he's doing is he's just having another night of his very 60/40 life, and that's just the way it plays out.

Jad Abumrad: Even on a shot by shot basis you're saying.

Jay Kohler: Yeah.

Jonah Leer: Each shot seems to be kind of a random event.

Robert Krulwich: Exactly. Are you willing to concede that statistically this is a-

Jad Abumrad: Not yet.

Robert Krulwich: Come on.

Jonah Leer: It's so counter intuitive, I still, as a basketball fan I was just watching a game the other night saying pass it to Kobe because he's clearly hot. The only acception to this whole, whole literature of streakiness is-

Soren Wheeler: Hockey.

Jonah Leer: No, is ...

Jad Abumrad: The sport no one cares about.

Jonah Leer: Is it Joe DeMatio's hitting streak where he hits for 42 games in a row? I've got it in a book somewhere.

Jad Abumrad: Actually, Joe DeMatio's hitting streak was 56 games, 56.

Jonah Leer: Yeah, so Joe DeMatio's is just about the only Adler you can find in professional sports.

Soren Wheeler: He's the only real hero.

Jonah Leer: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: Well at least I've got Joe.

Robert Krulwich: You know what Jad, one reason you have trouble I think ...

Jad Abumrad: More than trouble. I still don't believe this.

Robert Krulwich: Well because you're not the only person who is a person of pattern and habit. We all are. Pattern rules the brain. Here's another story. This is, again, from Jonah Leer but this one is about a woman. I believe her name is Ann.

Ann Conslober: I'm Ann Conslober. I live in the small country town where most people know other people.

Jonah Leer: Ann was a high school English teacher.

Ann Conslober: I taught for 31 years.

Jonah Leer: She now lives in West Virginia.

Ann Conslober: Can you wait just a minute there's someone at my door. I'm sorry.

Jonah Leer: Oops.

Ann Conslober: There's-

Jonah Leer: No, no of course, of course. Ann was an upstanding citizen, went to church every Sunday. Was just one of those people who-

Robert Krulwich: Makes the world go round.

Jonah Leer: ... makes the world go round.

Ann Conslober: I'm sorry.

Jonah Leer: Not at all.

Ann Conslober: Anyway, in 1991 I would go to the grocery store, and on the occasions I write a check for my groceries the woman would say gosh you're shaky.

Jonah Leer: She began to notice that her hands were start to tremble.

Ann Conslober: Are you all right? But I just thought maybe it was because of working that hard, and trying to get everything done.

Jonah Leer: And it got particularly bad when she said she was just walking in the mall doing some shopping.

Ann Conslober: I was by myself walking and it was like I stepped off a step that wasn't there.

Jonah Leer: It was the first full body tremor. She fell.

Ann Conslober: Then my husband was a doctor and he sent me to a neurologist who diagnosed me with Parkinson's.

Jad Abumrad: How old is she by the way?

Jonah Leer: She was at that point in her early 50s.

Robert Krulwich: What is Parkinson's?

Jonah Leer: Parkinson's is the death of dopamine neurons in the back of your brain, in the part of your brain that controls bodily movement. So when these neurons die the end result is first the shaking hand and the loss of feeling, and the loss of movement. Then of course the tremors get worse and worse.

Ann Conslober: Anyway ...

Jonah Leer: Well, the doctor diagnosed her with Parkinson's, and he gives her a drug called Requip.

Ann Conslober: Requip was a new medicine in 1992.

Jonah Leer: It's a pseudo dopamine. It basically mimics dopamine in the synapse of the cells.

Ann Conslober: It was like a miracle drug for me.

Jonah Leer: Her tremors disappear. Her symptoms disappear.

Robert Krulwich: So she's cured or ...

Jonah Leer: If you looked at her on Requip, years after she had Parkinson's you wouldn't notice anything. She would seem symptom free. So about seven or eight years go by, all the while they're upping the dosage to compensate for the cell loss that's still taking place. In the early years of 2000 something sort of unusual happened to Ann.

Ann Conslober: Some friends of mine had gone to Las Vegas every year for that basketball tournament, the final four type thing. They asked would I like to go with them, and I said, "Yes I would."

Jonah Leer: So she went to watch basketball, but as often happens in Vegas one afternoon she and her friends found themselves in a casino.

Had you ever gambled before this trip to Las Vegas?

Ann Conslober: No, I was raised in a household that was fairly religious, and we considered gambling a sin.

Jonah Leer: But as she stood there in a casino in Vegas she had this inexplicable urge to go to the slot machines.

Ann Conslober: They had frogs and princes and cars and cherries and lemons. Push a button, the wheels spin and see what the pictures did. I've never taken any drugs. I don't have anything to compare it to, but it was like a high. That was sort of the beginning of it.

Jonah Leer: Then when she comes back to West Virginia ...

Ann Conslober: I couldn't wait to get to a machine, I really wanted to play.

Jonah Leer: She discovers the dog racing tracks about 15 miles away from her house.

Ann Conslober: I'd go there at 7:30, be there when they opened.

Jonah Leer: That's where she would go, and they had a wide assortment of slot machines.

Speaker 20: Hi how are you?

Ann Conslober: If I had the money, I'd play all day.

Jonah Leer: From 7:00 to 3:30 in the morning.

Jad Abumrad: Whoa.

Jonah Leer: Then she would go home and play slots-

Ann Conslober: On the computer.

Jonah Leer: ... on her computer. Not even for money, just for the sheer visceral thrill.

Ann Conslober: I would play that the rest of the night. 7:30 the next morning I'd be back at the joint.

Speaker 20: Hi how are you?

Jad Abumrad: Without any sleep at all?

Jonah Leer: No sleep, and she could keep that up for several days in a row.

Ann Conslober: At the beginning of my gambling I'd wake up in the night and just scream out oh God what am I doing. Help me, save me, but eventually I became too hard hearted I guess to even pay attention to that.

Jonah Leer: Her credit cards are all maxed out.

Ann Conslober: I sold my mother's silver. I sold my silver ware. Things that should have been my son's, heirlooms. Stole from the safety deposit box.

Jonah Leer: She steals quarters from her grandkids.

Jad Abumrad: Steals quarters from her grandkids?

Jonah Leer: Yeah.

Ann Conslober: Anything I looked at around the house I thought I could get money out of.

Jonah Leer: Everyone who knows her is watching her life fall apart.

Ann Conslober: My house was filthy, dirty, a mess. I wouldn't take time to even was dishes.

Jonah Leer: She lives on peanut butter.

Ann Conslober: Didn't have any crackers or bread or anything, I just had peanut butter.

Jonah Leer: Because that's all she can afford and still leave as much money as possible for the slots.

Ann Conslober: Even when I'd be at church I'd think well there's so many more minutes, or so many more hours I can go gamble.

Jonah Leer: Her husband eventually leaves her.

Ann Conslober: I mean I loved my husband but-

Jonah Leer: They got divorced.

Ann Conslober: ... there's just no decision, everything is gambling. One of the neat things about gambling is that you can do it by yourself.

Jonah Leer: How much money did you lose during those years, if you don't mind me asking?

Ann Conslober: I lost at least $300,000.

Jad Abumrad: Wow.

Robert Krulwich: $300,000.

Jad Abumrad: Which to her is?

Jonah Leer: Is all her life's savings.

Jad Abumrad: That's one quarter at a time.

Jonah Leer: Yeah that's the surreal part.

Ann Conslober: I tried several things. I went to a rehab facility. My father, I told you I was raised in a really religious home, sometimes I would say my dad's watching me from heaven and he wouldn't approve of this. He would be so disappointed in me, but seemingly I just couldn't stop.

Robert Krulwich: Let me pause here for a second Jad. I want to just take a moment to try to figure out what exactly is happening to Ann.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, why can't she stop?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah. It turns out there may be an explanation if you look into her brain. Remember earlier we talked about a little chemical called dopamine.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: And how she didn't have enough dopamine in her brain so that was giving her some kind of movement trouble, the Parkinson's.

Jad Abumrad: Right.

Robert Krulwich: It also turns out to be the case that any time you do something that makes you feel good your brain spurts out dopamine.

Jonah Leer: For years that's how scientists saw dopamine, as the neurotransmitter of pleasure, the neurotransmitter of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Jad Abumrad: But you said earlier that dopamine has to do with movement.

Jonah Leer: Well, what is the ultimate purpose of movement from the perspective of evolution? It's to get you to food. It's to get you to sex. It's to get you to reward.

Jad Abumrad: Huh.

Jonah Leer: So that's why the same circuits, the same chemical that controls motivation, that controls what you want also controls movement.

Robert Krulwich: That turned out it was a little more complicated than that. In the mid 1970s-

Jonah Leer: A guy named Wolfram Schultz ...

Robert Krulwich: ... decided to take a much closer look, and his subject was a monkey.

Jonah Leer: He would put these very thin needles that can record the activity of individual dopamine neurons in the monkey brain.

Robert Krulwich: And they put the monkey in a room, and then every day they would walk down the hall too the room where the monkey was, and open the door.

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Robert Krulwich: They'd flip on the light. They'd give the monkey some juice.

Speaker 21: Here you go monkey.

Robert Krulwich: Then when the monkey sipped the juice ... dopamine.

Jad Abumrad: Happy monkey.

Robert Krulwich: Right, but then comes a surprise.

Jonah Leer: He soon discovered something very odd about these neurons.

Robert Krulwich: As they juiced this monkey day ...

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Robert Krulwich: After day ...

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Robert Krulwich: After day ...

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Robert Krulwich: After day ...

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Robert Krulwich: The squirt of dopamine which they were always measuring in the monkeys brain seemed to move forward in time.

Jad Abumrad: What do you mean?

Robert Krulwich: Well at first the dopamine hit when the monkey took the sip of juice.

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Robert Krulwich: After a while the monkey got the dopamine hit when they entered the room and switched on the light.

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Robert Krulwich: Then after a few more times the dopamine hit when the researchers feet could be heard walking down the hall. You see what's happening here?

Speaker 21: Hello monkey.

Jad Abumrad: Not really. You're going to have to bring it home for me.

Robert Krulwich: Well, then I'll do it again then. What the monkey is trying to do is piece together the sequence of events that inevitably lead to juice.

Jonah Leer: Exactly. That's what these cells do. They try to predict rewards.

Jad Abumrad: Oh, so this isn't just about movement or about feeling good, it's about finding the pattern of the thing that makes you feel good.

Jonah Leer: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: It's pattern finding.

Jonah Leer: Oh, this is pure pattern recognition. This is essentially how your brain makes sense of reality in some very primitive sense it parses reality in terms of rewards. This is how you get more food in the wild, is you continue the reward before anyone else can.

Jad Abumrad: So we're talking about like basic survival stuff here.

Jonah Leer: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There's one other wrinkle though, about the dopamine system that makes casinos and slot machines so tantalizing which is that these cells are also programmed to be very sensitive to surprising rewards. So this seems to be, most scientists speculate, that this seems to be the brains way of telling you pay attention you just got something for free. This must be good. Sit here in this nice, comfy, velvet chair and try to figure out this reward.

Robert Krulwich: So now imagine Ann, sitting there at the slot machine. She pushes the button on the machine, the slot machine, and oh my God-

Jonah Leer: Sirens and bells go off, coins clang.

Robert Krulwich: Inside her head, her dopamine neurons they're saying whoa this is wonderful, but now how did this happen?

Jonah Leer: Where did this big reward come from?

Robert Krulwich: What did you do this time?

Jonah Leer: Why are you so happy all of the sudden?

Robert Krulwich: And it starts searching for something.

Ann Conslober: They had frogs, and princes and ...

Robert Krulwich: Was it the number of-

Ann Conslober: Cherries, and-

Robert Krulwich: ... cherries that she had just before. Was it this machine had 13 hits and this was the 14th?

Ann Conslober: I thought I could tell-

Robert Krulwich: It has all kinds of pattern like things. It has bells. It has lights, but the problem is-

Jonah Leer: Is that there is no pattern to find.

Robert Krulwich: There is no pattern.

Jonah Leer: It's inherently random. It's inherently unpredictable.

Robert Krulwich: While the rest of us might just give up and walk away.

Jonah Leer: God I just waisted 100 bucks on this stupid machine. I should go get lunch.

Robert Krulwich: Ann can't go to lunch. Her dopamine system is-

Jonah Leer: Too powerful.

Robert Krulwich: ... too potent.

Jad Abumrad: Oh, because of that drug she's taking?

Robert Krulwich: Right. It keeps surging, and surging forcing her neurons to fight, fight hard to find a pattern. That's what's gripping her. Her brain is intoxicated at the possibility that it will learn how to succeed.

Jonah Leer: That it will crack an uncrackable code.

Ann Conslober: I thought I was good at solving the machines. In fact-

Jonah Leer: She told me a story about she would go to buy milk, and then spend the next twelve hours with the milk rotting next to her as she puts quarter, after quarter, after quarter into this machine.

Were you surprised when you learned that the medication might be responsible for your gambling addiction?

Ann Conslober: I mean, if someone had said to me, "This medicine will cause compulsive gambling." I would have thought they were crazy.

Jonah Leer: It's just at that time where the first studies come out showing that this is actually a common side effect of Requip.

Jad Abumrad: Really? So there were other Ann's appearing in other places, same deal?

Jonah Leer: Absolutely.

Ann Conslober: Basically, after my neurologist took me off the Requip-

Jonah Leer: Her compulsion disappeared instantaneously.

Ann Conslober: Almost immediately.

Jad Abumrad: That fast?

Ann Conslober: Well, within a week I'd say.

Jad Abumrad: Wow.

Jonah Leer: It was gone.

Ann Conslober: I haven't gambled for nearly three years.

Robert Krulwich: Did her Parkinson's return?

Jonah Leer: Yeah.

Ann Conslober: I have tremors a lot worse. I've recently gotten a cane. I have trouble walking. I use a walker.

Jonah Leer: So the price of not being a gambling addict is living with debilitating Parkinsonian symptoms.

Ann Conslober: My son, let me finish about my son. When I told him after I quit gambling I said, "Son I sold things that belonged to you. That you should have," and he said, "Mom, those are just things. It's just really great to have you back."

Jad Abumrad: Radio Lab will continue in a moment.

Mattie Whiner: Hi, I'm Mattie Whiner, calling from Louisville Kentucky. Radio Lab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation a by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Jad Abumrad: Hello, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radio Lab, and our topic today is ... You want to say the word?

Robert Krulwich: Stochasticity.

Jad Abumrad: Stochasticity.

Robert Krulwich: STO ...

Jad Abumrad: Which is a wonderful and fancy world that essentially means randomness, chance.

Robert Krulwich: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: Like the kind that's built into flipping a coin, or playing the lottery, or to take things deeper, when you breathe. Krulwich think about the air that's flowing around your head right now. It's full of atoms and molecules that are flying about and smashing into each other, and colliding and shooting off at different trajectories. It can't be predicted. It's totally chaotic, right?

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: Until you breathe it all in. When you do, things get predictable.

Robert Krulwich: Can I release?

Jad Abumrad: Nope, nope. Okay.

Robert Krulwich: Whew, okay.

Jad Abumrad: The point is when you breathe in all of those chaotic fluxing molecules come in, and become a part of the machinery that is you. They go into your blood. They go into your cells, which are themselves these little factories.

Jonah Leer: Factories full of even tinier factories like mitochondria.

Jad Abumrad: What are mitochondria? I'm not really sure, but I do know that's Jonah Leer, again. Himself a factory of insight.

Jonah Leer: Factories full of these intricate things which work and can understand this gene makes this protein, which makes this organo, which does this thing for the cell.

Jad Abumrad: This process is Jonah taking in flux and giving it a shake, giving it order, that is what life does. In fact, you might say it is the definition of life.

Jonah Leer: The closer you get the more you kind of stand in awe at the exquisite engineering. There is this sense that life can be the world's most elegant clock.

Robert Krulwich: Nicely put.

Jad Abumrad: Now, if life is a machine you would think that the most clock like, most machinery part of life would be all the way down at the bottom.

Robert Krulwich: I would think so.

Jad Abumrad: Which for our purposes is when a gene makes a protein. Gene, protein, gene, protein. This is the basis of life. So you would think it's got to be orderly. It's got to be predictable.

Robert Krulwich: Genes, proteins.

Jad Abumrad: Otherwise none of us would be alive.

Robert Krulwich: It it is a very predictable, orderly system so we all believe.

Soren Wheeler: I think how, kind of how it works.

Jonah Leer: Pretty amazing.

Jad Abumrad: But then we spoke to this guy.

Carl Zimmer: Yeah am I talking? Have I been talking clearly?

Jonah Leer: You're all right, yeah.

Carl Zimmer: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: He mucked things up a bit.

Carl Zimmer: I tend to be looking this way.

Robert Krulwich: Well what's your name?

Carl Zimmer: My name is Carl Zimmer.

Jad Abumrad: He's a science writer like Jonah.

Carl Zimmer: I roulette for the New York Times and Scientific American and Discover, I blog.

Jad Abumrad: He told us that this whole genes making proteins situation-

Jonah Leer: Here we are again.

Jad Abumrad: As tick tocking interference we've always assumed it to be, in fact scientists have never actually seen it.

Robert Krulwich: Well I mean it's very small, but finally scientists have figured out a way to turn on a light when it happens. So they now can see a gene turning on a protein.

Jad Abumrad: Literally see it with their own eyes.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: What they saw-

Carl Zimmer: Well-

Jad Abumrad: ... was astonishingly un clock like.

Carl Zimmer: At the fundamental level it's just sloppy, sloppy. That's the best word for it.

Jad Abumrad: In fact, in our interview he used that word like 42 times.

Carl Zimmer: Sloppy, sloppy, sloppiness, sloppiness.

Jad Abumrad: Sometimes he used this word.

Carl Zimmer: Random ...

Jad Abumrad: Or this ...

Carl Zimmer: Fluctuating ...

Jad Abumrad: And this one.

Carl Zimmer: Noise, chaos, noise.

Jad Abumrad: Definitely used that one a lot.

Carl Zimmer: Jumble, noise, noisy, accident. Noisy noise, noise, noise, noise, noise, noisy, sloppy, chaotic noise. Sloppiness, sloppy and fluctuating. Fluctuate. It's really crazy in there.

Jad Abumrad: He started by telling us about this experiment that happened in California, at Cal Tech, involving a little tiny bacteria called EColi. Which is Carl's favorite.

Carl Zimmer: Indeed. Yeah, so these are EColi. These are harmless residents of our gut.

Jad Abumrad: Would you call them creatures?

Carl Zimmer: They're creatures, sure. They sense their world. They make decisions. They feed.

Jad Abumrad: Okay.

Carl Zimmer: They reproduce, they have genes like us. They've got 4000 genes. I think they're earned the title creature.

Jad Abumrad: These creatures are actually very similar to our own cells. Their genes make proteins just like ours, so what these scientists did was they took some EColi that were exactly the same.

Carl Zimmer: Clones.

Jad Abumrad: In every single way.

Carl Zimmer: They're genetically identical.

Jad Abumrad: Then they put the whole batch in a dish, and they said, "Okay everyone we're going to turn on your genes start making proteins now." And they watched, because like you said earlier they had found this new way of getting the EColi to-

Carl Zimmer: Glow.

Jad Abumrad: Every time it's genes made a protein.

Carl Zimmer: It seems like it ought to be like just flicking a switch.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, you turn on the genes, click, protein, protein, protein, protein, turn it off. Turn it on, protein, protein, protein, protein, protein, turn it off.

Carl Zimmer: Couldn't get simpler.

Robert Krulwich: This is like a basic function of biology.

Carl Zimmer: Yeah this is biology 101, and again these are genetically identical EColi.

Jad Abumrad: Meaning they've got the same genes, they're making the same proteins so they should glow the same.

Carl Zimmer: Right, you just expect this steady glow in all of them.

Jad Abumrad: Nice and steady.

Carl Zimmer: And that's not what happened. You could start with an individual EColi and say okay well what happened with that one. It didn't start to glow, it started to flicker. There'd be a little bit of light, and no light, a little bit more light, then maybe a sudden flash, then dark again. Then a little bit of light ...

Jad Abumrad: Hmm, and they were expecting ...

Carl Zimmer: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: What they got is technically was ...

Carl Zimmer: Right.

Jad Abumrad: It was completely defective. Like a car with no muffler going putt, putt, putt. More troubling still, when they looked at EColi number two, it too was defective, except in its own unique way. Two had his own thing going, same with number three. He had his own thing going.

Carl Zimmer: I mean they're genetically identical.

Jad Abumrad: Same with number four.

Carl Zimmer: This is essentially the same creature in many different copies.

Jad Abumrad: And five, six too, and seven.

Carl Zimmer: Each one was flickering in its own-

Jad Abumrad: Number eight.

Carl Zimmer: ... pattern.

Jad Abumrad: Nine.

Carl Zimmer: Chaos.

Jad Abumrad: 10.

Carl Zimmer: Fluctuating.

Jad Abumrad: 11.

Carl Zimmer: Sloppiness, noise, chaos, noise, jumble, chaos, sloppy, chaos, sloppy, jumble, random sloppiness, noise, random noise, chaos, noise, sloppiness, noise, noise, noisy, sloppiness, noise, random noise.

Jad Abumrad: Now this noise would not be a problem if it's just a bacteria we're talking about, but according to Carl-

Carl Zimmer: It's everywhere.

Jad Abumrad: Everywhere in us. We are built, he says, on a foundation of chaos.

Robert Krulwich: This is very puzzling to me because if down at the deep level of our DNA there's just this random-

Jad Abumrad: Mayhem.

Robert Krulwich: Mayhem.

Jad Abumrad: Bedlam.

Robert Krulwich: How do you go from bedlam up to the organization that I think I represent? I wake up in the morning. I go to sleep at night. I get hungry, I eat. I breathe in, I breathe out. Listen to my heart. I am very, very orderly. I don't know how you get from this ... to this.

Carl Zimmer: That's right. I mean, so somehow all of this sloppiness has got to be somehow tamed because we're alive. I mean it's not total chaos in our bodies but-

Robert Krulwich: But, you keep ... This sentence never seems to quite finish. But we don't know how that happens, is that what?

Carl Zimmer: We have some ideas of how it happens. As scientists start to understand how genes work with other genes they can see ways in which you can filter out the noise and keep the good signal, keep the music.

Jad Abumrad: Okay so do you want to sit for something or ...

Little Ling Li: Sure. Where do you want to sit?

Jad Abumrad: Anywhere really.

Now this is find really cool. The research on this stuff is really new, but Carl says one of the ways that the body may do this ...

Jad Abumrad: Testing. Hello? Hello?

Jad Abumrad: May go from like ... to ... is by doing something that I actually do on this show all of the time, which is use a noise filter. The body may have engineered some noise filters. I'll just give you an example from my world. This is the honest to God's truth. I have a friend named little Ling Li.

Jad Abumrad: Hey little Ling.

Little Ling Li: Hello Jad.

Jad Abumrad: Tell me what you're holding in your hands there.

Little Ling Li: In my hands I have two audio tapes.

Jad Abumrad: Little Ling just recently called me up, she said I've got these two cassette tapes. They're really old.

Little Ling Li: I think they were made in the '70s.

Jad Abumrad: Her mom found them in her attic, and their of my grandmother.

Little Ling Li: Ones labeled Mema sings-

Jad Abumrad: Singing. Singing old slave songs, and old hymns. Now little Ling's grandmother died last year.

Little Ling Li: She was 99 years old.

Jad Abumrad: Wow.

They were really close.

Little Ling Li: Yeah, very close. They used to call me little Mema when I was a kid.

Jad Abumrad: So, she's got these tapes, she wants to hear them. The problem is if you put it on for more than three minutes you get annoyed.

Little Ling Li: There's that weird like shh.

Jad Abumrad: It's too noisy.

It was kind of like a frying sound.

Little Ling Li: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: She wanted to know if I could do something about it.

Little Ling Li: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: So, real quick, here's what I did. I put it into a computer, launched an EQ program, found the base noisiness, which was around 600 Hertz, dialed that down like so. Then I found the high hiss frequencies, which are around 2000 Hertz, dialed that down. Ah, now, as the final step I just kind of located the voice around 1000 Hertz and dialed it up. Okay, so it's not a flawless process. I mean now she sounds like she's coming out of a well, but for the first time you can hear her voice.

Little Ling Li: I don't know this is the first time I'm hearing this song, but it seems like she's describing the night that my grandfather passed away. Talking about the doctors telling her that my grandfather has passed, and then she's describing putting a fern in his hand. She said it should be a rose.

Jad Abumrad: The thing that's applicable here is that we started with this, and then just by bringing certain frequencies down, and others up, we ended up with this. This might be how it is in the body, that you've got this noise all the way in the bottom, these genetic circuits which are spitting out messiness, but somehow just on top of that are other genetic circuits which are cleaning it all up, giving it a shape.

Carl Zimmer: Err.

Jad Abumrad: What? Is that not right?

Carl Zimmer: Not quite.

Jad Abumrad: Dammit. Sorry humans. What's wrong with it?

Carl Zimmer: Well, in our cells there's no grandma.

Jad Abumrad: What do you mean there's no grandma?

Carl Zimmer: You don't start off with some very clear signal that gets masked by noise, the noise is there from the start. It's noise, and then whoop all the sudden you have this beautiful song.

Jad Abumrad: Carl went on to explain, and it took like an hour for us to finally get this. There's nothing but noise down there at the bottom and yet somehow the song emerges like a phantom. Because it seems like the noise is somehow filtering itself into music.

Carl Zimmer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Krulwich: So if we were to get the analogy right, Little Ling would hand Jad a tape with just fragmented sounds.

Jad Abumrad: Little bits of Mema.

Robert Krulwich: Little bits of Mema, in all kinds of random ways.

Carl Zimmer: Maybe she gave you eight or nine tapes.

Jad Abumrad: And somehow he says it all starts to kind of get into a network where this one filters that one, and that one filters the other one, and the other one filters that ninth one.

Carl Zimmer: And out of all of that comes grandma, comes the song.

Robert Krulwich: The song of a living, regular organism.

Carl Zimmer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Krulwich: A Mema literally, I mean grandmas are made from chaos.

Carl Zimmer: I love that.

Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Zimmer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Krulwich: You say mm-hmm (affirmative) like it was almost like that seems like a miracle. That one evening it stands up and walks.

Carl Zimmer: See the thing is you've hit ... I mean we are talking about something that scientists don't understand yet.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: Hmm.

Carl Zimmer: So I don't have ... So, there's not a ... If you want to have a part of this show where you say, and this people is how it all works-

Jad Abumrad: Can't do that.

Carl Zimmer: No.

Jad Abumrad: But heres the thing, if you want to get fruity about this you could say, and I put this to Carl, that if all the way down at the bottom of us there is this fuzz that cannot be predicted then in some sense we're free to be whatever we want.

Carl Zimmer: Hmm, well you know ...

Jad Abumrad: I mean, look I can sit here and concentrate and I can think any thought I want to right now.

Carl Zimmer: Any thought?

Jad Abumrad: Sure.

Carl Zimmer: But you can't think about a poem from second century China.

Jad Abumrad: True.

Robert Krulwich: Do you think that he ... Could you make an equivalence between lose mechanics and sense of freedom?

Carl Zimmer: Well you know I mean does the sloppiness and the floppiness of a protein clamping on to your DNA scale up to what you're going to be when you grow up?

Jad Abumrad: On Radio Lab, yes.

Carl Zimmer: Okay. All right. Well here we are then.

Hello this is Carl Zimmer. Radio Lab is produced by Soren Wheeler and Jad Abumrad. Our staff includes Ellen Horne, Lulu Miller, and Dean Gapello.

Little Ling Li: With help from Jennifer Matson, Michael Raphael, Anne Heathermen, Johnathon Mitchell, Amanda Aryanczyck, Charles Chilling, Emma Jacobs, Al Litskin and Ike Vizcantaraja. The last one is ... How do you pronounce this word?

Carl Zimmer: The Stochasticity theme song was created by Josh Kurts and Shane Winter. Special thanks to Little Ling Li and Mema.

Little Ling Li: Visit Radio Lab online at Radiolab.org where you can comment on this show, ask random questions and hear the entire Stochasticity theme song. Anyways, this is Little Ling. Thank you, bye.