Jun 28, 2010


Oops. In this hour of Radiolab, stories of unintended consequences.

You come up with a great idea. You devise a plan. You control for every imaginable variable. And once everything’s in place, the train hops your carefully laid tracks. In this episode, one psychologist's zeal to safeguard national security may have created a terrorist, while one community's efforts to protect an endangered bird had deadly consequences. And against all odds, a toxic lake spawns new life.

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Speaker 1: 00:00:00 Hi this is Anne Marie Woodward from the Royal Grande California. Radio Lab is supported by what the constitution means to me. The boundary breaking new play named the number one play of the year by the New Yorker and New York Magazine. Starting March 14th, for 12 weeks only. Get tickets now at contstitutionbroadway.com.

Robert Krulwich: 00:00:22 Hi I'm Robert Krulwich. Radio Lab is supported by IBM. 16 million new collar jobs will be created by 2024. IBM's new education model gives high school students work place 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 3: 00:00:49 Wait. You're listening. All right.

Speaker 4: 00:00:49 Okay.

Speaker 3: 00:00:49 All right.

Speaker 5: 00:00:49 You are listening to Radio Lab. Radio Lab from WNYC, and NPR.

Speaker 6: 00:01:04 Get everybody a level check.

Jad Abumrad: 00:01:07 We're going to start the show with this fellow. His names Ben Zimmer. He's the on language columnist-

Ben Zimmer: 00:01:12 For the New York Times Magazine.

Jad Abumrad: 00:01:14 Because we figured since we wanted to do a show called-

Robert Krulwich: 00:01:17 Oops.

Jad Abumrad: 00:01:17 Yeah, right. We thought we should call Ben, and so he came into the studio and he brought with him a bunch of his favorite oops'.

Ben Zimmer: 00:01:25 As an example, I just wanted to give one of my favorite examples of-

Jad Abumrad: 00:01:29 The first one that he hit us with began its life ... Was it in an AP news article?

Ben Zimmer: 00:01:35 Well it was an AP story, but the AP story was fine. When the AP story appeared on a news site from the American Family Association-

Jad Abumrad: 00:01:45 Which by the way-

Ben Zimmer: 00:01:45 Is a conservative Christian group. The headline, first of all, said homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials.

Robert Krulwich: 00:01:54 Was it kissing guys or something that they would be good at?

Ben Zimmer: 00:02:01 Well if you read on ... If you're confused by that headline, very, here's how it starts: Tyson homosexual easily one his semi finals for the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic trach and field trials. It goes on to say throughout the entire article, on Saturday homosexual misjudged the finish in his opening heat. The entire article had the word homosexual in place of gay. The sprinter's name is Tyson Gay.

Robert Krulwich: 00:02:25 oh my God.

Jad Abumrad: 00:02:28 According to Ben, this is a classic-

Ben Zimmer: 00:02:29 Classic example of-

Jad Abumrad: 00:02:31 Of a search and replace oops. This group apparently did not like the word gay.

Robert Krulwich: 00:02:35 Because gay makes homosexuality sound very nice and-

Jad Abumrad: 00:02:39 Very gay.

Robert Krulwich: 00:02:39 Very gay, right.

Jad Abumrad: 00:02:40 So what they did was they ran a search and replaced every instance of the word gay with the word homosexual, but then you get Tyson Gay becoming Tyson Homosexual.

Ben Zimmer: 00:02:50 This was just a one that they were a little careless with.

Robert Krulwich: 00:02:54 Just to be fair heres a contrasting example. In 1990 the Fresno Bee ran an article-

Ben Zimmer: 00:03:00 About the Massachusetts budget crisis, and it made reference to new taxes that will help put Massachusetts quote "Back into the African-American" and they had to issue a correction saying it should have said back in the black.

Jad Abumrad: 00:03:16 Now, this one might have been a news room prank, we're not sure.

Robert Krulwich: 00:03:20 It didn't get into the paper right.

Jad Abumrad: 00:03:22 Just for the hell of it, here's one last one. This one happened after the famous broadcaster Walter Cronkite died.

Ben Zimmer: 00:03:28 When the Chicago Tribune did their online obituary for Cronkite what happened was every instance of Cronkite got replaced by Mr. Cronkite. You can understand the thinking behind that. They're deciding, okay for deceased males they should be referred to with the title Mr. But then what this turns into is an obituary where it says he was born Walter Leland Mr. Cronkite Junior. It refers to his radio show Walter Mr. Cronkite's 20th century. It's got things about his family, his son Walter Mr. Cronkite the third. His daughter Kathy Mr. Cronkite.

Jad Abumrad: 00:04:10 I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich: 00:04:13 I'm Robert.

Jad Abumrad: 00:04:14 On this episode of Radio Lab four oops'. Starting with a tree.

Robert Krulwich: 00:04:25 Then we've got a goose that went ...

Jad Abumrad: 00:04:29 And an entire town that went ...

Robert Krulwich: 00:04:31 And a Harvard professor-

Jad Abumrad: 00:04:34 That really went oops.

Robert Krulwich: 00:04:34 Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 00:04:35 Now, we should just say before we start oops can be a misleading term. Really what we're talking about here is something Greek.

Robert Krulwich: 00:04:43 Where you try hard to prevent one thing, and then you get exactly what you didn't want to get back at you.

Jad Abumrad: 00:04:48 Right, and our first story falls into that category. Back a few seasons ago, we were doing a show on deception, and we ended up talking with a professor named Ruben Gur.

Ruben Gur: 00:04:58 Yes? Hello?

Jad Abumrad: 00:04:59 Hi is this professor Gur?

Ruben Gur: 00:05:00 Yes, speaking.

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:01 He's a psychiatrist that works at the University of Pennsylvania, and I'd called him to talk about his research on self deception.

Ruben Gur: 00:05:06 Self deception.

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:07 It's fascinating stuff, and I'm not going to go into it now because somewhere along the way the conversation took a really weird turn.


Ruben Gur: 00:05:14 Oh yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:16 Get out.

Ruben Gur: 00:05:17 Yeah, yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:17 It happened when he began to tell me about some studies.

Ruben Gur: 00:05:20 Strange studies-

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:22 Done by a ... What was the guys name?

Ruben Gur: 00:05:24 His name is hanging ... I don't remember. Hold on a second, Murray was his name.

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:34 Henry Murray.

Robert Krulwich: 00:05:37 The reason we want to hear about Henry Murray is what?

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:40 What? I built it up. Don't you want to know more at this point?

Robert Krulwich: 00:05:41 Yeah, no. Tell me why.

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:45 Okay, I'm going to let it unfold, because we were so interested in what Ruben Gur told us that we found the guy.

Alston Chase: 00:05:50 Hi.

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:51 How's it going?

Who knows a whole lot about professor Murray. His name is Alston Chase.

Alston Chase: 00:05:55 Very windy day today, isn't it?

Jad Abumrad: 00:05:57 He lives in a remote cabin in Montana, in the woods, in the foothills.

Alston Chase: 00:06:03 Professor Murray was a very prestigious scholar. He had been a professor of psychology at Harvard before the second World War. During the war, he went to work for the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner of the CIA.

Jad Abumrad: 00:06:19 A couple of years into his government service, says Alston, something happened that really spooked him and spooked the country.

Alston Chase: 00:06:26 During the Korean War-

Jad Abumrad: 00:06:29 There were some GI's, he said, who'd been captured in Korea, and afterwards-

Alston Chase: 00:06:33 After the Korean War-

Jad Abumrad: 00:06:34 ... they refused to come home.

Alston Chase: 00:06:35 ... they appeared to have betrayed their country.

Speaker 12: 00:06:39 Renounce their own country and disappeared behind red China's bamboo curtain.

Speaker 13: 00:06:43 Now, does anybody want to go home?

Speaker 14: 00:06:45 No.

Alston Chase: 00:06:46 The CIA and the military establishment was very much concerned that the communists had found techniques for brainwashing.

Jad Abumrad: 00:06:57 Murray and other psychiatrists in the government were charged with preparing those soldiers to resist that kind of brainwashing. Murray himself developed a style of interrogation.

Alston Chase: 00:07:07 Stressful interrogation was the term used.

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:10 That the army could use on its pilots.

Ruben Gur: 00:07:12 Yeah, they developed this method of kidnapping them before they were sent onto mission.

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:17 Then, says Ruben Gur, he'd run them through a battery of tests ...

Ruben Gur: 00:07:20 To see if they break, and if they didn't break then they were fine to fly.

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:24 This kind of psychological training was almost a new front in the cold war. In the 1950s Murray is back at Harvard, and he's thinking of ways to fine tune his techniques, and this is where things get interesting.

Alston Chase: 00:07:37 He took a class of Harvard undergraduates, 20 some odd-

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:40 Sophomores mostly.

Alston Chase: 00:07:43 The students were told to write an autobiographical essay.

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:45 Like a diary, and he told them, you know what-

Alston Chase: 00:07:47 Make it very personal.

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:48 ... write your deepest thoughts in there.

Alston Chase: 00:07:50 Highest aspirations, and hopes-

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:52 And while you're at it, write about your sexual fantasies.

Robert Krulwich: 00:07:57 Quite a class.

Jad Abumrad: 00:07:57 Go ahead. After the students were done he said to them "Now I'm going to pair you up into groups of two."

Alston Chase: 00:08:01 To debate, or discuss, what they'd written.

Jad Abumrad: 00:08:05 Students were like, okay we'll share, no big deal. But-

Alston Chase: 00:08:11 They were duped. They were walked into this very brightly lit room-

Jad Abumrad: 00:08:17 Which turned out to be an interrogation room with a one way mirror.

Alston Chase: 00:08:19 ... put in a chair, strapped in, electrodes were attached to their arms, chest, their heart.

Jad Abumrad: 00:08:27 To measure stress basically.

Alston Chase: 00:08:29 They were also filming through the mirror.

Jad Abumrad: 00:08:32 Then, instead of a classmate in walked a total stranger.

Alston Chase: 00:08:36 Older man-

Jad Abumrad: 00:08:36 This guy was holding their essay. They didn't know it, but Murray had trained him-

Alston Chase: 00:08:40 To do everything he could to anger and humiliate the undergraduate.

Jad Abumrad: 00:08:45 He just tore them apart piece by piece.

Alston Chase: 00:08:49 Using the essay to mock the students aspirations, and thoughts. Then after this was done the students have to come back week after week to view themselves on film being humiliated.

Jad Abumrad: 00:09:07 That, to me, seems like the worst part. After they'd been humiliated, they had to watch themselves being humiliated over and over.

Alston Chase: 00:09:14 People became tearful, and miserable, and he was proud how he destroyed people.

Robert Krulwich: 00:09:19 What kind of a person is this?

Jad Abumrad: 00:09:22 Like why did he do it?

Robert Krulwich: 00:09:23 Yeah.

Alston Chase: 00:09:23 Why Murray did it, there are any one of a number of explanations and they all could be true. One is it was grant grabbing. He was getting money to do these things.

Jad Abumrad: 00:09:33 Also, this was the Cold War, he was fighting communism, maybe he thought it was justified.

Robert Krulwich: 00:09:37 Yeah, but he just said he was proud of this.

Jad Abumrad: 00:09:40 Well, it also happens to be the case that he was having an affair.

Alston Chase: 00:09:44 For about 30 years, with a woman not his wife, and they had a sexual relationship that border on, in fact was, sadomasochistic. In other words, Murray's interests in these was intensely personal.

Jad Abumrad: 00:10:00 Whatever the case, in those Harvard experiments there was one student who was just not prepared for any of it.

Ruben Gur: 00:10:06 His code name was Lawful.

Alston Chase: 00:10:08 They gave each of these students a code name.

Ruben Gur: 00:10:11 Because he was considered so conventional.

Alston Chase: 00:10:13 He was-

Jad Abumrad: 00:10:14 Really still just a boy.

Alston Chase: 00:10:15 Graduated high school at 16.

Ruben Gur: 00:10:16 Was living a thousand miles from home, two shirts and two trousers to his name.

Jad Abumrad: 00:10:21 And Lawful apparently was an especially lonely kid.

Ruben Gur: 00:10:24 The notes I found of Murray did refer specifically to Lawful's essay which he saw as highly alienated.

Jad Abumrad: 00:10:31 When Lawful walked into that room, sat across from that stranger-

Alston Chase: 00:10:35 The guy really made a job on him. He was young so he was barely growing a beard. The first thing that the guy tells him is what is this on your chin? Something trying to look like a beard.

Jad Abumrad: 00:10:47 Then the guy opens up Lawful's essay and lets him have it. Meanwhile, like all of the students Lawful had been hooked up to all of these stress monitors.

Alston Chase: 00:10:55 I analyzed his data compared to all the other participants, and he had far and away the strongest response physiologically.

Jad Abumrad: 00:11:03 You mean like his heart beat the fastest and all that?

Alston Chase: 00:11:05 Heart beat, everything through the roof.

Jad Abumrad: 00:11:12 Amazingly, this experiment went on for three years. Decades later, a lot of the subjects were still upset.

Ruben Gur: 00:11:19 Considered it one of the most traumatic experiences they'd had in their 20s.

Jad Abumrad: 00:11:23 Lawful never forgot it.

Ruben Gur: 00:11:25 That's right. He was resentful at the way he was treated at Harvard. He had nightmares about professor Murray after he left Harvard.

Robert Krulwich: 00:11:33 So what happened to this guy?

Jad Abumrad: 00:11:36 Well, he finished up his four years at Harvard, got his degree, then got a PhD in math. Then he began to teach math, and then he became a household name.

Robert Krulwich: 00:11:45 What do you mean?

Jad Abumrad: 00:11:46 Well, I mean this ...

Speaker 12: 00:11:48 The FBI raid began just after noon, in a remote mountainous area called Stemple Pass, about five miles outside the town of Lincoln, Montana.

Jad Abumrad: 00:11:56 Turns out that Lawful's real name-

Ruben Gur: 00:11:58 Theodore Kaczynski.

Jad Abumrad: 00:12:00 No?

Ruben Gur: 00:12:01 Oh yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 00:12:01 Get out.

Ruben Gur: 00:12:02 Yeah.

Speaker 12: 00:12:03 The FBI dubbed him the unabomber. In nearly 18 years he found targets all over the country.

Speaker 15: 00:12:09 His meticulously made bombs have killed three people and injured another 23.

Speaker 16: 00:12:13 Blew my arm off to the side like this, and the first thing I thought was why did they do that.

Jad Abumrad: 00:12:20 Do you think that this study had anything to do with Ted Kaczynski's subsequent very infamous acts?

Ruben Gur: 00:12:28 Well, I think he probably would have, if it hadn't been for that experiment he still probably would have been maybe reclusive, living somewhere in a cabin in Montana regardless. I think the evil twist was done there.

Jad Abumrad: 00:12:45 Years later while he was researching a book, Alston Chase corresponded with Kaczynski.

Alston Chase: 00:12:50 In one of his letters he mentioned that he participated in some psychological experiments conducted by professor Murray. Of course, I was very curious and I wrote it back "Can you tell me a little bit more about it?" And he said, "Well I don't know if you want to go into that can of worms."

Jad Abumrad: 00:13:19 Ruben Gur is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and Alston Chase is the author of the book Harvard And The Making Of The Unabomber.

Heres one more, from Ben Zimmer. What is the Coopertino effect?

Ben Zimmer: 00:13:46 The Coopertino effect is the name given to the phenomenon of when you rely on a spellchecker too much. It will give you a suggestion, and very often it's a suggestion that you really shouldn't take.

Jad Abumrad: 00:14:01 Why is called the Coopertino effect?

Ben Zimmer: 00:14:03 Well, in early spellchecker's if you wrote cooperation, the word cooperation C-0-0-P-E-R-A-T-I-O-N, perfectly typical spelling of the word cooperation. In early spellchecker's that word was not there because it expected you to spell it "co-" and so what it would do is it would give you a suggestion and the suggestion was coopertino, a little town in California. If you look at documents that are still online, from the UN, from the EU, from NATO you'll find dozens and dozens of coopertino's that have found their way in there. For instance, heres a German NATO officer was quoted as saying the coopertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful. Then there was a proposal from the EU scientific and technical research committee. They proposed quote stimulating cross border coopertino.

Jad Abumrad: 00:15:01 Oops number two, you go.

Robert Krulwich: 00:15:04 The next one is just a different flavor entirely. We're going to meet someone ... I don't know, I can't really say that he did anything wrong-

Jad Abumrad: 00:15:13 Yeah, I mean this one is more like, would you say luck?

Robert Krulwich: 00:15:16 Suppose we just picked up a toothbrush, and it was connected to a snake that was connected to a monster that was connected to the devil himself. You wouldn't know. You're just picking up a toothbrush. So this is a case where really bad things happen. This story comes from our own reporter Pat Walters.

Jad Abumrad: 00:15:32 Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: 00:15:33 It concerns ... Well, I don't know you go ahead and ...

Pat Walters: 00:15:35 Okay, so just to start I want you to imagine you're on a mountain top.

Robert Krulwich: 00:15:40 Okay.

Pat Walters: 00:15:41 This mountain is in Western Nevada.

Michael Cohen: 00:15:42 The second highest peak in the state of Nevada.

Robert Krulwich: 00:15:45 Got a name?

Pat Walters: 00:15:46 It's called Wheeler Peak.

Robert Krulwich: 00:15:47 And who's this?

Pat Walters: 00:15:48 This is Michael Cohen.

Michael Cohen: 00:15:50 I go by Michael P Cohen.

Pat Walters: 00:15:51 He's a nature writer, and he tells me that up on top of this mountain-

Michael Cohen: 00:15:55 There is a grove of old trees. You can see the trees from a distance, and their wood is so bright that it actually glistens in the sun.

Robert Krulwich: 00:16:06 What do they call it?

Pat Walters: 00:16:07 Oh, Bristle Cone Pines.

Michael Cohen: 00:16:08 Yes.

Pat Walters: 00:16:09 Can you describe what they look like?

Michael Cohen: 00:16:10 Sure, they tend to be shorter, broad at the base. They get very, very old, and as they get old they become tortured, or gnarled.

Pat Walters: 00:16:20 They sort of twist up towards the sky.

Michael Cohen: 00:16:23 The overall effect is sort of electrical.

Pat Walters: 00:16:25 They look kind of like what you'd see in a Tim Burton movie. You have that picture?

Robert Krulwich: 00:16:30 Yeah.

Pat Walters: 00:16:31 In mind.

Robert Krulwich: 00:16:31 Yep.

Pat Walters: 00:16:31 Okay, so the story is about this scientist named Don Currey.

Michael Cohen: 00:16:36 I'm going to take a drink of water, wait I'm going to take a drink of water.


Pat Walters: 00:16:41 Story starts in 19-

Michael Cohen: 00:16:42 64. Don Curry was a graduate student from North Carolina, and he was young.

Pat Walters: 00:16:48 Do we know how old he was?

Michael Cohen: 00:16:49 He was 30 years old.

Pat Walters: 00:16:50 He'd just gotten the big grant from the National Science Foundation to do some climate change research. Not like climate change now though, climate change thousands of years ago. He learned that you can actually sort of travel back in time.

Ron Lanner: 00:17:02 Go back into the past using the spacing between tree rings, the annual rings.

Pat Walters: 00:17:09 This is Ron Lanner. He's a retired Forest Service scientist. He says you can use the width of the tree rings-

Ron Lanner: 00:17:15 To determine whether it was colder at one time, or rainier at one period in the trees life, or whatever.

Pat Walters: 00:17:21 So Curry is up on top of this mountain, amongst these trees, and he needs to find one that he can look inside and kind of see what the weather was like way back in-

Ron Lanner: 00:17:30 The past.

Speaker 20: 00:17:31 Five minutes of looking is all that was involved.

Pat Walters: 00:17:35 This was from a NOVA documentary, Curry died a few years ago, and this is actually the only time that he ever talked about this story on tape.

Speaker 20: 00:17:42 Literally-

Ron Lanner: 00:17:43 He found a tree there-

Speaker 20: 00:17:45 The first old tree that we climbed to-

Ron Lanner: 00:17:49 ... that he described as looking super, super old.

Pat Walters: 00:17:53 So Curry takes out this special drill which scientists use to take a core sample, to look at the rings.

Ron Lanner: 00:17:59 Yeah.

Pat Walters: 00:17:59 Presses it up-

Ron Lanner: 00:18:00 Against the tree, give it a good push to get it through the bark-

Pat Walters: 00:18:03 And he starts twisting it in.

Ron Lanner: 00:18:05 Clockwise into the tree, but he wasn't having much luck.

Speaker 20: 00:18:12 The normal approach to coring the tree, wasn't working.

Pat Walters: 00:18:18 It becomes harder, and harder for him to turn this thing into the tree.

Ron Lanner: 00:18:21 And eventually the bit of his drill broke off in the tree.

Pat Walters: 00:18:30 This isn't just any drill, he ordered it from Sweden. The whole time he's thinking, if I can't get this thing out of the tree-

Speaker 20: 00:18:36 That would mean the research project would be lost for the year.

Ron Lanner: 00:18:41 At this point-

Pat Walters: 00:18:42 He kind of lumbers back down the mountain, dejected.

Ron Lanner: 00:18:46 He managed to find the district ranger, and told him the problem.

Pat Walters: 00:18:51 Guys, my drill it got stuck in the tree, what should I do? They tell him, don't worry about it Don-

Ron Lanner: 00:18:58 We'll just cut the tree down.

Pat Walters: 00:18:59 This is one tree, there are dozens of these trees all around. So they start slicing into the tree. It takes a while to cut it down because it's really dense, full of knots and gnarls. Eventually the tree falls over.

Ron Lanner: 00:19:17 Then they cut some slabs out of the lower part of the tree.

Pat Walters: 00:19:21 Curry gets one of these slabs back to his lab, throws it on a big desk, finds a magnifying glass because the rings are really small, and he starts counting.

Speaker 20: 00:19:29 One, two, three ...

Pat Walters: 00:19:32 As he counts, he's making little-

Ron Lanner: 00:19:33 Pin holes, or pencil marks every 50 or 100 years.

Speaker 20: 00:19:38 317 ...

Pat Walters: 00:19:39 By the end of the first day, he gets back to 1000 years. Like the dark ages we're in Europe eating raw possum. Day two-

Speaker 20: 00:19:51 2006, 2007 ...

Pat Walters: 00:19:53 By the middle of the day, he gets back to like Jesus, Roman Empire, gladiators and Centenarian, but even at that point he was only like half way finished. He kept counting.

Speaker 20: 00:20:05 We could begin to see that we were getting over 4000 years, over 4500, over 4600 and we ended around 4900 years.

Ron Lanner: 00:20:16 It had 4844 annual rings in it.

Pat Walters: 00:20:20 And at that point, the oldest tree that anyone had ever found was 4600 years old. In other words-

Ron Lanner: 00:20:28 He had himself the oldest tree ever.

Pat Walters: 00:20:32 But he had killed it.

Speaker 20: 00:20:35 You've got to think, I've got to have done something wrong. I better re count. I better re count again.

Pat Walters: 00:20:41 No matter how many times he counted the rings, the number never went down. The worlds oldest tree was dead.

Speaker 20: 00:20:58 It was truly ... It was horrifying. It was like a family tragedy.

Pat Walters: 00:21:07 People had given these trees names.

Speaker 20: 00:21:09 There was Buddha, and Socrates and Mathusala.

Pat Walters: 00:21:12 They called Curry's tree-

Speaker 20: 00:21:14 The Prometheus tree.

Pat Walters: 00:21:16 The guy who named that particular tree was so angry that he wrote a magazine article where he called Don Curry a murderer.

Michael Cohen: 00:21:22 All across the country there was a tremendous uproar.

Jad Abumrad: 00:21:26 Saying what?

Michael Cohen: 00:21:27 About killing the world's oldest living organism.

Robert Krulwich: 00:21:34 I thought we were just saying ... I thought it was the oldest living tree.

Pat Walters: 00:21:36 It's both. It's the oldest tree, and it's the oldest organism.

Robert Krulwich: 00:21:42 Wait, wait, wait. You mean that the oldest continuously living animal, shrub, mushroom, are you sure about this? What you just said was this is the oldest living continuous individual alive on the planet.

Pat Walters: 00:22:00 I know what I said. This tree was older than any other tree on the planet, older than the oldest sponge, which is like 1500 years old. Older than the oldest animal, which is some sort of oyster which is 405 years old. Older than any other living thing on the entire planet.

Robert Krulwich: 00:22:18 Oh God.

Pat Walters: 00:22:24 Where do we go from there?

Robert Krulwich: 00:22:26 So where does that leave Mr. Curry? Oh God. So what happened to him?

Pat Walters: 00:22:32 Well, right after this happened Curry pretty much stopped doing research on trees. He basically studied salt flats for the rest of his career. Big, treeless salt flats. Aside from that little NOVA clip that we played before, he hasn't really ever gone on record talking about this. It's hard for us to say how he really felt about it, but there was this one moment. He was being interviewed by a TV reporter about his salt flats research.

Michael Cohen: 00:22:59 This would have been in the 19, probably the late 80s, early 90s.

Pat Walters: 00:23:03 Years and years after the whole tree incident.

Michael Cohen: 00:23:06 All of the sudden out of a clear blue sky the television reporter asked him oh aren't you the Curry who killed the world's oldest tree. He was completely ambushed. And Curry just turned his back and ran away. That's stain that doesn't wear off somebody.

Robert Krulwich: 00:23:36 He did have the incredible misfortune to kill the oldest living organism on our planet.

Pat Walters: 00:23:41 Yeah, but this is 25 years later, and he's still getting hassled about this tree. We're talking about one tree here.

Robert Krulwich: 00:23:48 Well, no. We're talking about the tree here.

Pat Walters: 00:23:51 Right.

Robert Krulwich: 00:23:52 The thing about a tree that lasts for almost 4000 years.

Pat Walters: 00:23:57 More than that.

Robert Krulwich: 00:23:58 5000 years.

Pat Walters: 00:23:59 Almost 5000 years, sure.

Robert Krulwich: 00:24:01 Is that it is a repository, it is a talisman for 5000 years of Earth history.

Pat Walters: 00:24:07 But I mean would it be any less bad if the tree were three and a half thousand years old? This is just one more old thing.

Robert Krulwich: 00:24:14 No it isn't. It's the oldest of all.

Pat Walters: 00:24:17 Your thinking like the Guinness Book of World Records.

Robert Krulwich: 00:24:19 Yes. Well you keep making me into like a Ripley's Believe It or Not guy, but no.

Pat Walters: 00:24:22 That's exactly what you're being.

Robert Krulwich: 00:24:24 No. No, no. There's a ... When you've been around longer than everybody else there's a sort of-

Pat Walters: 00:24:29 Which I've never experienced.

Robert Krulwich: 00:24:31 Yeah, well-

Pat Walters: 00:24:32 Have you?

Robert Krulwich: 00:24:33 Well I'm older than you. I walk in here and I look at you and I feel pity for all the things you don't know, imagine what the tree must have felt.

Jad Abumrad: 00:24:47 That was reporter Pat Walters. We're happy to say that sense our original broadcast of this story, a new oldest living tree has been found. It's also a bristle cone pine, also in the white mountains and it's current age, according to Dr. Peter Brown of the Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research Group is just about 5060 years old. Which makes it actually older than Don Curry's tree when it was cut down. So Don Curry if you're out there listening from the after life you can now rest in peace. We'll continue in a moment.

Chuck: 00:25:24 Hi this is Chuck from Albany, New York. Radio Lab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and 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.

Ashley Harding: 00:25:49 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: 00:26:34 Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radio Lab is supported by Royal Caribbean. If you knew what was going to happen in this Radio Lab episode would you keep listening to us? I don't think so. Not knowing, is part of the adventure, part of the fun. Adventure is what Royal Caribbean is all about. Each day they give you something to do that's totally different from the day before. You can soar inside Sky Pad, which is a VR thrill ride. You can discover different island destinations day after day, different places all on the same trip, and so much more. Why just vacation in the Caribbean when you can go on an adventure on Royal Caribbean. Come seek at RoyalCarribean.com ships registry, Bahamas.

Speaker 23: 00:27:14 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 sciencey lives of city pigeons, I know you've always wondered about that. Plus you can enjoy music, live demonstrations, and a lot more. Join us Saturday, April 27th for one night only. Details and tickets at bam.org/sciencefriday. Saturday, April 27th.

Robert Krulwich: 00:27:48 And now, to keep us in our oopsy mood-

Jad Abumrad: 00:27:50 Here's another coopertino oops from language expert Ben Zimmer.

Ben Zimmer: 00:27:54 Back in October '06 Reuters, the news wire, had an article about honey bees and there were some very interesting sentences in this article about honey bees. For instance, did you know quote Queen Elizabeth has ten times the life span of workers, and lays up too two thousand eggs a day.

Robert Krulwich: 00:28:15 That's why she's a very nice girl, but doesn't have a lot to say, because there's all these eggs dropping on the floor.

Ben Zimmer: 00:28:19 With it's highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behavior.

Robert Krulwich: 00:28:28 I get it, so every time a queen reference came in they were commanded to that particular queen.

Ben Zimmer: 00:28:33 Whenever the words "the queen" appeared in this article, it had to be the queen.

Robert Krulwich: 00:28:37 Oh.

Ben Zimmer: 00:28:37 So, the queen was being replaced with Queen Elizabeth.

Jad Abumrad: 00:28:40 Oh.

Ben Zimmer: 00:28:40 Unfortunately in an article about honey bees.

Robert Krulwich: 00:28:54 This next oop-

Jad Abumrad: 00:28:55 Singular oop?

Robert Krulwich: 00:28:56 Wouldn't it be? I mean if you have one oop, wouldn't be a-

Jad Abumrad: 00:28:59 Never heard that.

Robert Krulwich: 00:29:00 No, it's just a new coinage.

Jad Abumrad: 00:29:01 Oop.

Robert Krulwich: 00:29:02 This next one, it raises a question of, I guess you'd say, moral balance.

Jad Abumrad: 00:29:07 A question that I don't think any of us would want to have to answer.

Robert Krulwich: 00:29:11 Comes to us from our producer Lulu Miller.

Jad Abumrad: 00:29:14 Okay, so set up the story. This story happens where?

Lulu Miller: 00:29:18 It's in a little town in northern Michigan called Mio.

7AM, just drove through the Delaware water gap.

That's me on my way out there from New York.

The sun is rising and-

It's about an 800 mile drive.

... it's just gorgeous out here.

Jad Abumrad: 00:29:35 Dude listen to you-

Lulu Miller: 00:29:36 Lush and-

Jad Abumrad: 00:29:37 ... all into the outdoors.

Lulu Miller: 00:29:38 It's nauseating.

Jad Abumrad: 00:29:39 Yeah a little.

Lulu Miller: 00:29:39 I know, but I'm just one of those people when I get out into nature that I feel my place in the world. Anyway-

Just crossed into Mio.

Jad Abumrad: 00:29:50 What was the reason you were going again?

Lulu Miller: 00:29:51 To see a bird, a very not just rare, not just the kind of bird birders get obsessed about, this is a bird ... This is what they call a life bird.

Jad Abumrad: 00:30:02 A life bird?

Lulu Miller: 00:30:03 Birders wait their life to see it.

Jad Abumrad: 00:30:05 Really?

Lulu Miller: 00:30:06 Yeah. Only found right here.

Jad Abumrad: 00:30:08 What's the bird called?

Lulu Miller: 00:30:09 The Curtland Warbler.

Now have you seen a Curtland before?

Speaker 25: 00:30:12 No I've never seen one. This is my first trip up here.

Jad Abumrad: 00:30:15 This right here where are you right now?

Lulu Miller: 00:30:17 We're just outside of the town, on the edge of the forest, about to go in, and I'm standing with about 15 people who've come from everywhere.

Where are you folks coming from?

To see this bird.

Speaker 26: 00:30:26 Toledo.

Speaker 27: 00:30:27 I'm from South Carolina.

Rita: 00:30:29 We're from Oregon.

Speaker 29: 00:30:30 Wyoming.

Speaker 25: 00:30:31 We'll walk out to a spot, try to stay single file.

Lulu Miller: 00:30:34 The park ranger leads us down the path into a little clearing, and pretty immediately-

Speaker 27: 00:30:39 In the background there.

Speaker 29: 00:30:42 Way back there?

Speaker 27: 00:30:42 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lulu Miller: 00:30:43 A guy from Ohio spots a Curtland.

Oh, there he is, yeah.

Speaker 30: 00:30:47 Oh good, he turned around.

Lulu Miller: 00:30:48 A tiny yellow bird.

Speaker 27: 00:30:50 Back there.

Lulu Miller: 00:30:51 Up high in a jack pine tree.

Oh yeah, oh great, it's singing like crazy.

A lady from Dayton starts clapping.

Can you describe what you're seeing?

Jim Coleman: 00:30:59 I see a lovely bird with a gray back.

Lulu Miller: 00:31:02 This is a guy from Oregon. Jim Coleman.

Rita: 00:31:04 Blue gray back.

Lulu Miller: 00:31:05 And his wife Rita.

Rita: 00:31:06 It's smaller than a Robin, yellow. In the sunlight it's just an absolutely radiant bird. Yeah.

Lulu Miller: 00:31:12 Is this worth the trip from Oregon?

Jim Coleman: 00:31:15 Oh you bet. I don't know, it just makes me thankful that I'm here, and it makes me grateful that my wife is here. I know this is something that she's wanted to see for a long time.

Lulu Miller: 00:31:28 Yeah. Jim actually starts to tear up.

Jim Coleman: 00:31:29 It's a very special bird.

Lulu Miller: 00:31:34 That's what this story is really about, how special is this bird.

Jad Abumrad: 00:31:42 Meaning?

Lulu Miller: 00:31:43 Well how much is a species worth.

Jad Abumrad: 00:31:45 I don't-

Lulu Miller: 00:31:50 Well, here's the back story.

Jad Abumrad: 00:31:51 Okay.

Lulu Miller: 00:31:52 In the early '70s the warbler almost went extinct. The reason why, it was thought, was because of a little creature called the cow bird.

Chris Mensing: 00:32:00 Want to go in?

Lulu Miller: 00:32:03 Okay.

That's just the sound of them-

Chris Mensing: 00:32:06 Its a parasite, you know and some-

Jad Abumrad: 00:32:08 Who is this guy?

Lulu Miller: 00:32:08 This is Chris Mensing.

Chris Mensing: 00:32:09 Fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lulu Miller: 00:32:13 We're standing in this cage full of cow birds.

Chris Mensing: 00:32:16 Well it looks like we've got six males and one female. Let me crab a couple.

Lulu Miller: 00:32:21 He just reached out and grabbed two of them. Your good at that.

Chris Mensing: 00:32:24 The males-

Lulu Miller: 00:32:24 Can I try?

Chris Mensing: 00:32:25 Yeah, go ahead.

Lulu Miller: 00:32:25 Okay.

Imagine a tiny little gnarly crow.

That really sharp little beaks.

Chris Mensing: 00:32:31 Yeah.

Lulu Miller: 00:32:31 But with this blunt, dagger like beak.

Chris Mensing: 00:32:33 It has a very drab body, very dull.

Lulu Miller: 00:32:36 Here's what the cow bird does to the warbler. While the warbler is out of it's nest-

Jad Abumrad: 00:32:40 Like getting a worm or something?

Lulu Miller: 00:32:41 Yeah. The cow bird lays one of its own eggs in the nest, to make room for it so the warbler doesn't know anything is up, it pushes out one of the warblers eggs.

Jad Abumrad: 00:32:50 Oh.

Lulu Miller: 00:32:51 Out of the nest?

Chris Mensing: 00:32:52 Mm-hmm (affirmative) and the timing is such that the cow bird egg will hatch first, and will double it's size in 24 hours.

Lulu Miller: 00:32:57 Wow.

Chris Mensing: 00:32:58 So by the time that the host birds hatch, that cow bird may be up to four times the size, and when they start begging for food from the parents the loudest most aggressive chick is going to get fed. The cow bird chick.

Jad Abumrad: 00:33:09 So the warbler mom ends up shoveling food into this cow bird chick?

Lulu Miller: 00:33:12 Yep. Often times it gets so much food that another warbler chick will die.

Jad Abumrad: 00:33:16 Wow.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:16 So when the cow birds first showed up in this area-

Chris Mensing: 00:33:19 In the late 1800s, early 1900s.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:21 ... the warbler population just started plummeting.

Chris Mensing: 00:33:23 This huge drop.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:24 By 1971-

Chris Mensing: 00:33:26 There were only 200 males-

Lulu Miller: 00:33:27 On Earth.

Jad Abumrad: 00:33:28 Wow.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:28 So, what do you do?

Jad Abumrad: 00:33:31 Are you asking me?

Lulu Miller: 00:33:32 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jad Abumrad: 00:33:34 I guess you've got to kill the cow birds.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:36 Exactly.

Chris Mensing: 00:33:37 This is one of 54 traps. It's a new one that we just built this year.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:40 Which is why we're out in this cage. It's actually a cow bird trap.

Chris Mensing: 00:33:45 Yeah she's biting me. Just like anyone, that's scared of someone larger grabbing you. They don't appreciate it too much.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:50 And you want to know how they kill them?

Jad Abumrad: 00:33:51 I kind of do, yeah.

Chris Mensing: 00:33:52 Thoracic compression is the term we use. We basically squeeze the bird, suffocating it, preventing it from breathing.

Lulu Miller: 00:33:58 Just with your hands, there's no-

Chris Mensing: 00:33:59 Yep.

Lulu Miller: 00:34:00 Wow.

Chris Mensing: 00:34:00 Yep.

Lulu Miller: 00:34:00 Yeah. Do you have to do that?

Chris Mensing: 00:34:00 Yeah.

Lulu Miller: 00:34:02 Like all the time?

Chris Mensing: 00:34:03 Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 00:34:04 Did you see this?

Lulu Miller: 00:34:05 No. But, 1972 Fish and Wildlife Service sets up a bunch of traps, a few years and about 12 thousand dead cow birds later.

Chris Mensing: 00:34:16 It works.

Lulu Miller: 00:34:23 Kind of. The population stopped dying off, but then it didn't start bouncing back.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:34:29 What's going on?

Jad Abumrad: 00:34:31 Yeah.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:34:32 Why aren't we seeing bigger numbers now that we're catching the cow birds

Lulu Miller: 00:34:35 That's Rita Halbeisen. She worked with the Forest Service back in the '80s.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:34:38 We thought, well. We finally concluded it must be just there is not enough habitat.

Jad Abumrad: 00:34:44 Like they don't have enough trees? Is that what ...

Lulu Miller: 00:34:46 Well, no. There are plenty of trees, but the thing about warblers is they like a specific kind of tree. They like them very young. That was weird. I could feel it as I was saying it. They like them young.

Jad Abumrad: 00:35:00 No, but they like young trees is what your saying.

Lulu Miller: 00:35:01 Yep.

Jad Abumrad: 00:35:02 And there aren't young trees in this place?

Lulu Miller: 00:35:04 No, it's really weird. When they started looking around this forest they noticed all the trees were really, really old.

Jad Abumrad: 00:35:10 Why? Why wouldn't there be young trees?

Lulu Miller: 00:35:12 Well, us. Hey, hey, Smokey Bear. See, when humans began to settle in this area of Michigan in about the 1880s they brought with them that certain human disdain for fire.

Speaker 34: 00:35:31 Only you can prevent forest fires.

Lulu Miller: 00:35:36 Fire is exactly what's needed up there to make new trees.

Chris Mensing: 00:35:39 Yeah, this ecosystem is a fire ecosystem.

Lulu Miller: 00:35:42 Says Chris.

Chris Mensing: 00:35:42 It burns.

Lulu Miller: 00:35:43 Because when these trees burn they release their seeds, and make room for new trees to grow.

Chris Mensing: 00:35:48 It is a fire ecosystem. It is made to burn.

Lulu Miller: 00:35:51 So, I ask you again, what do you do?

Jad Abumrad: 00:35:55 Do you start fires, would that be the solution?

Lulu Miller: 00:35:56 That would be the solution. So the Forestry started doing-

Rita Halbeisen: 00:36:00 What we call a prescribed burn.

Lulu Miller: 00:36:01 Basically, says Rita, they burn down a little patch of forest.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:36:04 A few acres.

Lulu Miller: 00:36:05 To regenerate it. One windy spring day in 1980 at a place called Mack Lake, the Forestry Service started a fire that they probably shouldn't have.

Dick Lord: 00:36:14 Okay my name is Dick Lord. At the time of the Mack Lake fire, I was part of the ignition crew for the prescribed burn.

Lulu Miller: 00:36:23 What is an ignition crew?

Dick Lord: 00:36:25 They light the fire.

Lulu Miller: 00:36:27 So at ten in the morning Dick and his crew go out into the woods.

Dick Lord: 00:36:31 We went out with a plan.

Lulu Miller: 00:36:31 Start setting up perimeters, and they begin lighting a few stands of shrubs.

Bob Burner: 00:36:35 I was driving home.

Lulu Miller: 00:36:37 That's Bob Burner, best name ever for a firefighter.

Bob Burner: 00:36:39 I could see the Forest Service starting to do a burn, and I thought this is not a good time. It was windy. They didn't have the manpower. I said, we'll probably be getting called out here shortly.

Dick Lord: 00:36:52 Basically we did not realize that the weather was going to change as rapidly as it did.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:36:59 The wind came up suddenly, something nobody could predict, and it took the fire across the road into a stand of mature jack pine, and took off.

Dick Lord: 00:37:12 There were flames probably 100 to 150 feet in the air.

Bob Burner: 00:37:17 The sound was like a roaring train.

Lulu Miller: 00:37:19 The forest guys jump into their bulldozers trying to plow trenches alongside the fire.

Dick Lord: 00:37:24 To pinch it off.

Bob Burner: 00:37:24 You could feel the heat.

Dick Lord: 00:37:27 It was way out of our control.

Bob Burner: 00:37:29 Hitting the tops of the trees, rolling.

Dick Lord: 00:37:33 I knew at the rate it was traveling that it was going to be a major catastrophe.

Lulu Miller: 00:37:40 Within six hours, it had burned over 20 thousand acres. It's one of the fastest moving fires ever documented.

Bob: 00:37:48 I went through there. As far as you could see was all black.

Lulu Miller: 00:37:51 These are two guys.

Bob: 00:37:52 I'm bob.

Mike: 00:37:52 I'm mike.

Lulu Miller: 00:37:52 Who own houses in the area that got burnt.

Bob: 00:37:54 I remember the guy down there on the corner. Grounds all burned up, black, charred.

Lulu Miller: 00:37:58 Their houses were okay, but 41 houses were destroyed.

Mike: 00:38:02 All the way up to the light.

Lulu Miller: 00:38:02 So just completely-

Mike: 00:38:02 Yeah.

Bob: 00:38:02 There wasn't nothing green, nothing.

Mike: 00:38:08 Like something out of a moonscape.

Bob: 00:38:09 As far as you could see, everything gone.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:38:12 The worst part about it for all of us-

Lulu Miller: 00:38:14 That's Rita Halbeisen again.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:38:15 ... was that it killed one of the Forest Service employees, a very young wildlife technician who was very well loved by his coworkers.

Lulu Miller: 00:38:25 A guy named Jim Swidarski.

Dick Lord: 00:38:26 You know Jim was a good friend, as well as an employee.

Lulu Miller: 00:38:32 Dick Lord again, Jim's boss. He told me that Jim had been a post man for a few years, but just loved birds so much that he took a huge pay cut to come and help protect the warbler.

Dick Lord: 00:38:42 Basically, what happened was the fire overran him.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:38:51 Oh, the press was having a hay day just tearing in to the Forest Service for what had happened.

Dick Lord: 00:38:56 The towns people were very angry at the Forrest Service.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:38:59 How could you do this.

Lulu Miller: 00:39:00 Rita says they were told not to wear their Forest Service uniforms in town.

Rita Halbeisen: 00:39:03 Gosh, it was so terrible.

Lulu Miller: 00:39:06 The forest itself-

Rita Halbeisen: 00:39:08 There was nothing there.

Lulu Miller: 00:39:09 ... was completely silent. A year later, a little bit of green started to poke up, and the next year a little bit more, and-

Rita Halbeisen: 00:39:20 Eight to ten years after that Mack Lake burn, just seemed like everywhere you turned around it stop for, and listen, and there were five or six birds. A tremendous number of warblers. That was the answer to the mystery.

Lulu Miller: 00:39:35 The fire.

Chris Mensing: 00:39:36 If you look at a population graph-

Lulu Miller: 00:39:38 That's Chris Mensing again.

Chris Mensing: 00:39:39 ... after that Mack Lake burn the population went like that ...

Lulu Miller: 00:39:42 He points his hand straight up.

Chris Mensing: 00:39:44 That's pretty dramatic.

Lulu Miller: 00:39:45 Today, the numbers are up to almost 4000 birds.

Rita: 00:39:49 Oh, there he is, yeah.

Lulu Miller: 00:39:49 And growing.

Rita: 00:39:49 Singing like crazy.

Lulu Miller: 00:39:56 Now that the birds are back, but a man is gone, when you walk around this town a question lingers in the air.

Dick Lord: 00:40:05 Is the life of a fireman worth the life a bird.

Rita: 00:40:05 Oh, take a look, take a look.

Dick Lord: 00:40:05 Is it?

Jim Coleman: 00:40:05 That's incredible.

Rita: 00:40:05 I got him. I got him.

Ed Faucet: 00:40:20 No, in my opinion it isn't.

Lulu Miller: 00:40:22 This is Ed Faucet.

Ed Faucet: 00:40:23 I wouldn't trade your life for a bird.

Lulu Miller: 00:40:26 I'm sitting with him and his wife Mary Jane in a diner. No matter where you go in this town-

Speaker 40: 00:40:33 What's the government doing?

Lulu Miller: 00:40:34 People don't tend to be huge fans of the warbler.

Speaker 40: 00:40:37 It's just a small bird.

Speaker 41: 00:40:38 I've been up here since '68. I've never seen one.

Lulu Miller: 00:40:41 Did you ever see one?

Ed Faucet: 00:40:42 No.

Speaker 41: 00:40:42 Never have I seen one.

Speaker 40: 00:40:43 I've never seen one.

Ed Faucet: 00:40:44 No.

Lulu Miller: 00:40:45 And back to Ed.

Ed Faucet: 00:40:45 I just got to say to you, what would you think about it if your father or brother were killed for a bird. It'd be pretty hard to accept wouldn't it.

Lulu Miller: 00:40:55 But if you zoom out, one human life versus the end of a species.

Ed Faucet: 00:41:01 You know how many warblers there are in the United States? There's something like 37 species of warblers.

Lulu Miller: 00:41:08 The real number is actual closer to 60.

Jad Abumrad: 00:41:08 Whoa.

Ed Faucet: 00:41:11 I mean that's kind of ridiculous.

Lulu Miller: 00:41:13 That's not all.

Chris Mensing: 00:41:14 They ask you, "Well when are you done?" And we really say never.

Lulu Miller: 00:41:17 Chris explained to me that they have to keep killing the cow birds, and they have to keep doing burns, smaller burns, but every single year.

Chris Mensing: 00:41:24 If we let things be, the bird would be extinct.

Lulu Miller: 00:41:27 Wow.

Chris Mensing: 00:41:27 That's the hard thing about this job is knowing that we're never done.

Lulu Miller: 00:41:31 How many people are working, how much ...

Chris Mensing: 00:41:35 You're probably looking at 100s of people. Well over a million dollars a year is spent.

Lulu Miller: 00:41:39 All this began to really sink in, on one of my last mornings out there.

All right, it is five in the morning.

It was the annual Curtland warbler census.

Chris Mensing: 00:41:53 Good morning.

Lulu Miller: 00:41:54 Where birders from all over the world show up to help count how many warblers there are out there.

Jad Abumrad: 00:41:59 Is it like, there's a warbler, step, step, step, there's a warbler.

Lulu Miller: 00:42:02 Yeah, that's actually exactly how it works. I was paired up with this guy Dave Mendez.

Dave Mendez: 00:42:07 We're going to kind of walk through the middle of these transects. We're going to come up-

Lulu Miller: 00:42:10 He's kind of a dude, dude. He's an older guy, got a beard.

Dave Mendez: 00:42:13 I work for an electrical contractor.

Lulu Miller: 00:42:15 Told me he's got a man room.

Dave Mendez: 00:42:17 My man room. Most guys got sports, but I've got Curtland's warbler pictures up on the wall.

Jad Abumrad: 00:42:23 Nice.

Lulu Miller: 00:42:23 So I went into it thinking this will be really cool. We'll march along, we'll count them.

Dave Mendez: 00:42:23 Pretty good to go.

Lulu Miller: 00:42:28 I looked at the map, it was a mile maybe of a walk. We'll be done in twenty minutes. Well, okay maybe not, we're walking through the forest, an hour tops.

Jad Abumrad: 00:42:37 And?

Lulu Miller: 00:42:38 We set of, dense brambly forest, still dark.

Is that one?

Dave Mendez: 00:42:45 That was a hermit thrush.

Lulu Miller: 00:42:46 Oh okay.

Let me just play you a quick little time lapse.

Dave Mendez: 00:42:49 20 to seven right now, the sun's just coming up and it's getting a little muggy out here. That was a curtlands.

Lulu Miller: 00:42:56 Oh yeah?

Dave Mendez: 00:42:57 Yep. We can't count him though, he's not in our section. 7:07, I heard one way back that way.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:04 Yeah?

Dave Mendez: 00:43:05 Yeah, there he is again.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:06 Yeah.

Dave Mendez: 00:43:07 But I'm not going to mark him in because I don't know exactly where he's at. 7:33, there he goes.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:15 Yeah?

Dave Mendez: 00:43:16 Yep, right there.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:16 So do you count him now?

Dave Mendez: 00:43:17 No, no, no.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:18 Not yet, okay.

Dave Mendez: 00:43:19 We want to be a lot more accurate. We want to triangulate him. 9:56 and all is well in the warbler woods.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:25 Oy, a couple of ants are biting me.

Dave Mendez: 00:43:26 Ants?

Lulu Miller: 00:43:27 Yeah.

Dave Mendez: 00:43:28 They hurt don't they.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:29 They do a little bit, yeah. Get out of there.

Dave Mendez: 00:43:33 10:45 AM. I know that there's a bird out there. I can still hear that bird way back there.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:41 So we end up staying out there for seven and a half hours. We just marked one right?

Dave Mendez: 00:43:46 Yep, we've only marked one.

Lulu Miller: 00:43:48 I don't mean to sound like I'm making fun of Dave. I mean, he's doing his job well, but at some point in between the fire ants and taking four hours to confirm this one bird-

Dave Mendez: 00:43:59 He's going to be right off over here.

Lulu Miller: 00:44:01 I just started thinking about all the effort it takes.

Dave Mendez: 00:44:04 Two rows of trees over from us, and we can't see him.

Lulu Miller: 00:44:06 I just suddenly thought, it's this fussy fragile little bird, and it hasn't evolved, who cares.

Jad Abumrad: 00:44:15 Yeah.

Lulu Miller: 00:44:15 I mean, this is not worth it. So I started asking people who protect the bird ...

Why do it? So much money, and it's all for a bird. I could see it maybe if it was for some ... But it's just one warbler of 18 million different kinds of warblers. Why do it?

Chris Mensing: 00:44:33 Well, we do it because we should. You know we're stewards of the land.

Lulu Miller: 00:44:37 That's Chris Mensing again, cow bird killer.

Chris Mensing: 00:44:39 It's for future generations.

Lulu Miller: 00:44:42 Heres the fire starter, Dick Lord.

Dick Lord: 00:44:44 The Curtland's warbler was listed under the endangered species act and we had a charge under the law to do what we could to recover its existence. That's the only thing that I can say. That we had to do what the law required us to do.

Lulu Miller: 00:45:03 So we should do it, and the law tells us we have to do it, unconvincing. That question-

Ed Faucet: 00:45:12 Is the life of a fireman worth the life of a bird.

Lulu Miller: 00:45:16 ... and that guy Ed at the diner, it just stuck in my mind. I realized I couldn't leave this town until I talked to the people who lost the most.

Can I just get you to introduce yourselves-

Robert S.: 00:45:25 Whole name or-

Lulu Miller: 00:45:25 Yeah, sure.

Robert S.: 00:45:27 Robert Swidarski, age 54.

Katheline S.: 00:45:27 Katheline Swidarski.

Florence S.: 00:45:31 Florence Swidarski.

Katheline S.: 00:45:32 The mother-

Robert S.: 00:45:34 Mother-

Florence S.: 00:45:34 I'm the mother.

Jad Abumrad: 00:45:34 Of the guy who died?

Lulu Miller: 00:45:35 Yeah.

Florence S.: 00:45:36 I guess that's it.

Robert S.: 00:45:37 Want ice tea, or water, or anything?

Lulu Miller: 00:45:39 We're all sitting around the kitchen table.

Robert S.: 00:45:41 There's a lot of hotdogs and beer over there.

Lulu Miller: 00:45:43 Jim's brother-in-law is there too.

Kevin Dupre: 00:45:44 So I'm Kevin, Kevin Dupre.

Lulu Miller: 00:45:46 I asked them to tell me about Jim.

Kevin Dupre: 00:45:48 Quite a guy. Soft spoken ...

Robert S.: 00:45:52 Smart.

Kevin Dupre: 00:45:53 Quite a character.

Robert S.: 00:45:54 Yep.

Lulu Miller: 00:45:55 They told me at first, they were furious.

Florence S.: 00:45:58 They should have never, ever sent him in there.

Lulu Miller: 00:46:00 Angry at the Forest Service, angry about this bird.

Robert S.: 00:46:03 Very angry.

Lulu Miller: 00:46:04 Now, three decades later.

Robert S.: 00:46:07 I say you keep that little bird going.

Kevin Dupre: 00:46:09 Exactly.

Jad Abumrad: 00:46:10 Really?

Lulu Miller: 00:46:11 Jim's younger brother, Robert, said that the thing he wanted the most is for the Curtland's warbler to become the-

Robert S.: 00:46:17 State bird. That would be the ultimate. That would be the biggest accomplishment ever would be that being the state bird.

Lulu Miller: 00:46:26 Wow, I guess in some ways I'm surprised. I didn't mean to come here with expectations but in some ways I thought if it was my family that I would hate that bird, that I would just hate that bird.

Florence S.: 00:46:38 No it's not the bird. I mean that bird didn't do anything to any of us.

Robert S.: 00:46:42 That's right.

Florence S.: 00:46:44 If we can keep it going ... I mean, that's what he set out to do, let's keep it going.

Lulu Miller: 00:46:49 They think about Jim's death, like the death of a soldier.

Kevin Dupre: 00:46:53 Where would you be sitting right now if we wouldn't have lost all those soldiers in World War I, World War II.

Lulu Miller: 00:46:59 That he died protecting us.

Kevin Dupre: 00:47:02 You know, it's only one species. Well then it's going to be another species, and another species, and another species. Next thing you know you'll walk out in the morning and it'll be quiet. Thank God for Teddy Roosevelt and them boys that made our National Parks. Imagine if we didn't have those. It costs money, it's painful, blah, blah, blah. You've got to have the guts to do that, and Jim was really that kind of guy.

Jad Abumrad: 00:47:31 Wow, that is convincing.

Lulu Miller: 00:47:32 Yeah.

I mean, do you agree Florence?

Then I asked the mom.

Florence S.: 00:47:38 What can I say, the birds are coming back, but the life is gone. Why bring it up again? It's done, you can't bring it back, so you have to live with it. There's always a whole in your heart, something that none of us will ever forget forever. Don't ask me any more questions, please.

Lulu Miller: 00:48:12 And then-

Kevin Dupre: 00:48:12 There she goes again.

Lulu Miller: 00:48:14 The power went out.

Florence S.: 00:48:15 Geez Louis, give me a break.

Robert S.: 00:48:21 Let me go home and get the generator.

Kevin Dupre: 00:48:29 Going to have to. I think we're done.

Robert S.: 00:48:29 Boy, it's pretty dark.

Jad Abumrad: 00:48:43 Lulu Miller. If you want more information on warblers, or anything, or if you want to subscribe to our podcast go to RadioLab.org.

Gretchen C.: 00:48:49 Hey Radio Lab, this is Gretchen Corsmill and I'm sitting in Oakland California looking out over beautiful Lake Merit. Radio Lab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation, and 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: 00:49:16 Hey I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich: 00:49:17 And I'm Robert.

Jad Abumrad: 00:49:19 And the topic remains-

Robert Krulwich: 00:49:21 Oops.

Jad Abumrad: 00:49:23 Final oops coming up. It's sort of a double oops I would say.

Robert Krulwich: 00:49:28 We start with an oops that leads to another oops that then self negates.

Jad Abumrad: 00:49:32 It comes to us from a fellow who within the confines of the show we will call Oopsy Wheeler.

Soren Wheeler: 00:49:38 Maybe we could just start with both of you kind of introducing yourself and saying who you are and what you do. I mean just something basic like-

Andrea Stierle: 00:49:44 Hi, I'm Andrea Stierle.

Don Stierle: 00:49:46 Oh, me. I'm Donald Stierle.

Soren Wheeler: 00:49:48 This is Don and Andrea Stierle, they're chemists. They're actually a research team.

Don Stierle: 00:49:51 Here at the University of Montana.

Soren Wheeler: 00:49:53 They met back in the '70s.

Andrea Stierle: 00:49:55 Back in 1979.

Soren Wheeler: 00:49:57 At the University of California in San Diego.

Andrea Stierle: 00:49:59 We met and almost fell in love at first sight. We dated for a week, he proposed, I accepted.

Soren Wheeler: 00:50:07 They got married, and not long after Don got offered a job. They left their home in sunny California.

Andrea Stierle: 00:50:13 Mind you we lived about half a mile from the ocean.

Soren Wheeler: 00:50:17 Nonetheless, they-

Don Stierle: 00:50:18 Packed up a truck with all of our stuff.

Soren Wheeler: 00:50:19 Including ...

Andrea Stierle: 00:50:20 About 200 plants.

Soren Wheeler: 00:50:21 And they moved to-

Don Stierle: 00:50:22 Bute Montana.

Soren Wheeler: 00:50:27 Which is a different thing all together.

Don Stierle: 00:50:29 An old mining town that barely had a tree in the city limits. I don't know if you want to know Andrea's first impressions of Bute or not.

Soren Wheeler: 00:50:38 Sure.

Andrea Stierle: 00:50:39 I actually burst into tears, and then started laughing. I think we call that hysterical.

Barret Golding: 00:50:47 Yeah the viewing stand used to be up on the hill over here when this was an operating pit.

Soren Wheeler: 00:50:54 I actually grew up in the town over from Bute in Montana. It's kind of that town that you were afraid to go to when you were a kid. Filled with abandoned buildings, depressed. Actually if you walk through town, right there, right next to the middle of town-

Barret Golding: 00:51:10 I don't remember exactly where it was, I remember being here in the late-

Soren Wheeler: 00:51:13 ... is this enormous-

Barret Golding: 00:51:14 ... '70s.

Soren Wheeler: 00:51:14 ... open wound on the hill.

Barret Golding: 00:51:16 Oh wow.

Soren Wheeler: 00:51:19 This deep pit.

Barret Golding: 00:51:21 This is where the pit is.

Soren Wheeler: 00:51:23 The Berkeley pit. The guy saying wow is Barret Golding. I couldn't get back to view it myself, so I asked Barret to go over there and visit with a couple of engineers.

Barret Golding: 00:51:32 So tell me who you are, go ahead.

Joe Griffen: 00:51:34 Well I'm Joe Griffen, Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Nick Tucci: 00:51:37 I'm Nick Tucci, I'm with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Soren Wheeler: 00:51:41 The three of them are standing at the edge of the pit, which is kind of hard to imagine, especially the size of this thing, but when you're at the edge of the pit and you look down in what you actually see is ...

Barret Golding: 00:51:51 How can you convey what we're seeing?

Soren Wheeler: 00:51:53 This enormous lake, kind of.

Joe Griffen: 00:51:57 Well it's 40 billion gallons of water, which is a lot of water. It's one of the larger lakes in the united states.

Jad Abumrad: 00:52:03 Just carved into this hill?

Soren Wheeler: 00:52:05 Yeah. The main difference between this lake, and one that you might decide to take an afternoon dip in is that this lake is a bizarre-

Barret Golding: 00:52:14 The color of the water is red. This kind of sickly red.

Soren Wheeler: 00:52:21 And also ...

Barret Golding: 00:52:22 Greens and gray and black.

Soren Wheeler: 00:52:25 It's technicolor. It shimmers in this way that words can't describe. When you're standing there you can't help but wonder ...

Barret Golding: 00:52:38 The question I really have, and I'll rephrase it after I ask it, because it's not quite ... What the ... happened here?

I don't think that's going to air.

Joe Griffen: 00:52:38 Yeah.

Barret Golding: 00:52:47 I mean what happened?

Joe Griffen: 00:52:48 Well it's just the price of copper.

Soren Wheeler: 00:52:53 In the 1920s when we were stringing up telephone wires, and electrical wires, and going through world wars a third of the copper in the U.S. came out of this hill.

Joe Griffen: 00:53:01 The long and the short of it is you wouldn't be standing here broadcasting this, or recording this without copper in your wire right there.

Soren Wheeler: 00:53:09 In its hay day, you know before the pit was even around, Bute was this mining boom town. By the 1940s the price of copper had dropped, the company that owned all of the mines in Bute wasn't doing so well, and so they figured it'd be cheaper and easier to just blow the top off the hill. Things just kept getting worse, and by 1982, right around the time when Don and Andrea were coming to town the mines completely shut down.

Andrea Stierle: 00:53:41 When they shut the pit in early 1980s the-

Soren Wheeler: 00:53:45 Here's the thing, while they're actually mining they keep all the ground water pumped out of there so that it's dry and they can work. When they shut the mines down, they shut off the pumps.

Andrea Stierle: 00:53:53 The company turned off the pumps, I think it was Earth Day 1982.

Soren Wheeler: 00:53:59 Yeah, on Earth Day.

Andrea Stierle: 00:54:00 After that the pit started filling up with ground water. It took a good ten years to actually see a kind of a rust colored puddle in the bottom of the pit itself.

Soren Wheeler: 00:54:12 But it was a puddle that was growing, and growing, and growing, and growing. Now here's the thing about that water, the rock around the pit is filled with pyrite, and when the water hits the pyrite and the air the three react to create sulfuric acid.

Jad Abumrad: 00:54:30 Uh oh.

Edwin Dobb: 00:54:31 In turn-

Soren Wheeler: 00:54:32 That's Edwin Dobb.

Edwin Dobb: 00:54:33 Freelance writer, have been for about 20 years.

Soren Wheeler: 00:54:36 Who actually grew up in Bute.

Edwin Dobb: 00:54:37 The sulfuric acid hastens the removal of the medals from the ore itself, like gold and silver and copper.

Andrea Stierle: 00:54:44 Copper, cadmium, zinc, iron sulfate-

Edwin Dobb: 00:54:48 Arsenic.

Andrea Stierle: 00:54:49 Arsenic.

Soren Wheeler: 00:54:50 What you end up with is this toxic, acidic disaster.

Andrea Stierle: 00:54:55 And it's still rising.

Soren Wheeler: 00:54:58 In fact, since we started working on this piece Jad it's risen about a foot.

Edwin Dobb: 00:55:03 There was an infamous incident in the mid 1990s.

Soren Wheeler: 00:55:08 Anybody who grew up anywhere near Bute knows this story.

Edwin Dobb: 00:55:11 One stormy night some 340 snow geese landed-

Joe Griffen: 00:55:16 They landed on the water-

Edwin Dobb: 00:55:17 Looking for shelter-

Joe Griffen: 00:55:18 And they, of course, drank some of it.

Soren Wheeler: 00:55:19 The next day there were 342 goose carcasses floating on the water.

Edwin Dobb: 00:55:25 They were all dead, and the autopsy showed legions in the esophagus throughout the digestive system-

Jad Abumrad: 00:55:33 Oh, so it's like the water ate their insides?

Edwin Dobb: 00:55:35 Yeah.

Soren Wheeler: 00:55:36 Were you struck at all, like upon arriving there did you actually kind of go visit the mine, the old mine site.

Andrea Stierle: 00:55:42 No, avoided it like the plague.

Soren Wheeler: 00:55:44 Oh.

Andrea Stierle: 00:55:45 We were too staunch environmentalists, and the idea of living in a mining town was so completely foreign.

Soren Wheeler: 00:55:53 When they first showed up in Bute, Don and Andrea they were kind of struggling to fit in at the University because they're trying to study this little microorganism.

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:01 The sponge in Bermuda.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:02 But they're in Bute.

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:04 Land locked Bute, Montana.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:06 To make matters worse, when they took off for a year on sabbatical ...

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:09 Our college accidentally unplugged our refrigerator destroying all of our samples.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:13 oh my God.

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:15 Desperation.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:16 Definitely.

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:16 We had no funding. We decided we just needed to start over.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:21 But, one day ...

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:22 A scientist named Bill Chatham ...

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:24 Came into their lab.

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:25 With a piece of wood, and on this wood there was some green slimy stuff.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:30 He says, "You won't believe this, but I found this stick with the slime on it, in the pit."

Andrea Stierle: 00:56:36 Floating about a foot below the surface of the water.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:39 Now, here's the thing, I mean that lake, this is like ... This is the most deadly place you can imagine. Nothing grows here, nothing should grow here.

Jad Abumrad: 00:56:48 Nothing.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:49 Absolutely not.

Jad Abumrad: 00:56:50 Not even anything but nothing.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:51 Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 00:56:52 What's less than nothing? Maybe absolute nothing.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:55 Like negative numbers-

Jad Abumrad: 00:56:56 Of nothingness.

Soren Wheeler: 00:56:57 It's more than nothing. It's an active getting rid of thing.

Jad Abumrad: 00:57:00 It's a negating nothingness.

Soren Wheeler: 00:57:02 You know how there's love and hate, this is not a lack of love, this is hate.

Jad Abumrad: 00:57:07 Okay.

Soren Wheeler: 00:57:07 But, they got together with some colleagues, they looked at the slime, and they realized against all odds this stuff was alive.

Andrea Stierle: 00:57:16 Life, and acid mine waste.

Soren Wheeler: 00:57:18 Life that no one had ever studied before.

Andrea Stierle: 00:57:21 Yet it really is what started everything we've been doing now. Gosh, for the last 15 years.

Soren Wheeler: 00:57:31 So far-

Don Stierle: 00:57:32 We've found virtually hundreds of compounds, organisms that were growing.

Soren Wheeler: 00:57:37 Organisms that make molecules that can fight viruses.

Don Stierle: 00:57:41 Several turn out to be good in our anti cancer screens.

Jad Abumrad: 00:57:44 They fight cancer? Really?

Soren Wheeler: 00:57:45 Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: 00:57:45 Wow.

Andrea Stierle: 00:57:45 We found Berklic acid, and Berkeley Amits, and the Berkeley Acitels.

Soren Wheeler: 00:57:49 They've now published tons of papers. I mean their work has just taken off.

Don Stierle: 00:57:54 It's been pretty exciting research.

Soren Wheeler: 00:58:00 But then they told me this story that totally took them by surprise. It was about a year after they'd first started looking at the pit water.

Andrea Stierle: 00:58:08 We found this sort of a sticky, opaque, thick, gooey, black organism.

Soren Wheeler: 00:58:16 Then they noticed that weirdly if you put this little guy into a thing of the water from pit the pit.

Andrea Stierle: 00:58:21 It actually absorbs the metals in pit water.

Jad Abumrad: 00:58:25 What does that mean, like they're taking the metals out of the water?

Soren Wheeler: 00:58:27 They become little metal sponge, yes.

Jad Abumrad: 00:58:29 So they're cleaning the water is what you're saying.

Soren Wheeler: 00:58:31 Yeah, and there's lots of people that work with microorganisms to try to clean up metal laden water, but usually these things take in maybe like I don't know 10, 15% of the metals.

Jad Abumrad: 00:58:31 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Soren Wheeler: 00:58:41 This little guy ...

Andrea Stierle: 00:58:42 Will actually absorb between 85 and 95%.

Jad Abumrad: 00:58:42 Whoa.

Soren Wheeler: 00:58:47 So they got really curious about it and they started to figure out where it had ever been seen before.

Andrea Stierle: 00:58:52 We had it identified.

Soren Wheeler: 00:58:54 They eventually discovered ...

Andrea Stierle: 00:58:55 That the only place this yeast had ever been found was ...

Jad Abumrad: 00:59:00 Where?

Don Stierle: 00:59:01 Well ...

Andrea Stierle: 00:59:02 In the rectal swabs of geese.

Jad Abumrad: 00:59:06 You mean like the snow geese that landed on the water?

Soren Wheeler: 00:59:09 Yeah. The geese left a little something behind.

Jad Abumrad: 00:59:19 Wow.

Soren Wheeler: 00:59:21 A present.

Jad Abumrad: 00:59:35 Soren Wheeler. More information at Radiolab.org.

Don Stierle: 00:59:40 My name is Don Stierle, and Radio Lab is produced by Jad Abumrad, and Soren Wheeler.

Andrea Stierle: 00:59:49 Our staff includes Ellen Horne, Lulu Miller, Michael Rayfield, Brenna Farrow, Pat Walters ...

Don Stierle: 00:59:55 And the one and only Tim Howard. With help from Sharon Shaddick, Raymond Tugicar, Nicole Curry, and Sam Albright. Special thanks to Barret Golding, Phil Hubor and the whole Hubor Family, and Aaron Sands. There you go. I hope I haven't made too many mistakes.

Robert Krulwich: 01:00:12 Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radio Lab is supported by IBM. By 2050 the world population will reach nearly 10 billion, and food production will need to grow by 70%. So what if artificial intelligence could help? Farmers are already using it to help increase crop yields. Watson, and the IBM cloud provide access to weather data, and analyze satellite imagery to help them monitor soil moisture levels and reduce water waste. So as the population grows, more food can be put on the table. So let's put smart to work and find out how at IBM.com/smart.