Jun 2, 2009

Stayin' Alive

This week on the podcast we take a look at four unconventional ways to stay alive. We talk to geneticist George Church, who originally appeared in our So Called Life Show, biologist Bernd Heinrich, neuroscientist David Eagleman, and finally, we visit a CPR class.

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Robert Krulwich: Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich, Radiolab is supported by Zip Recruiter. Some job boards overwhelm you with tons of the wrong resumes, it's not smart, but Zip Recruiter finds the right people for you and actively invites them to apply, smart! So try it for free at Ziprecruiter.com/Radiolab. Zip Recruiter, the smartest way to hire.

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Jad Abumrad: Hello, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab the podcast.

Robert Krulwich: Yep.

Jad Abumrad: And today on our podcast four little stops we're gonna make, all centered around that thing that none of us can avoid that's coming for us all. I'm talking of course, about the big D. 

Robert Krulwich: Well, we all know we're going to die. Except some of our science friends. 

Remember when we were at Harvard and we were talking to George Church? 

George Church: George Church, professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. 

Robert Krulwich: We were doing a show about bioengineering.

George Church: So here's an example of where we might grow up a large batch of, of cells, in a fermentor. 

Jad Abumrad: Yeah. George Church was the guy who was trying to use little bacteria to make gasoline. 

George Church: A couple of liters.

Robert Krulwich: He is manipulating life.

Jad Abumrad: Right.

Robert Krulwich: He also flirts around with the idea of eliminating the concept of death.

George Church: I think, I think I disagree that there is a quantum leap between living and non-living. I think there's a continuum between non-living and living, and you can create all sorts of things.

Robert Krulwich: Wait, wait at some point like, if I were to shoot you in the head.

George Church: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: And you were to fall on the floor with a whole in your head, 

George Church: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: and bleed, 

George Church: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: and I have no nurse or no doctor help you,

George Church: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: At some point your state will have changed fundamentally. You'll stop breathing and you'll be over.

George Church: But I won't necessarily-

Robert Krulwich: Yes, you will be dead.

George Church: I'm saying that depending on the probability of a doctor coming into the room and fixing me, and the probability of more advanced technology and being able to reverse all kinds of pathological damage, there's a value to saying that there's a continuum between life and death and it could take-

Robert Krulwich: I'll give you the continuum, but I'm also saying that there will be a certain point at which you are unmistakeably over. 

George Church: With current technology. But not necessarily with future technology and there may be-

Robert Krulwich: You're saying that it is possible that you can never be totally dead? That, that might be a reversible state at some point?

George Church: Well, if we recorded the position of all my atoms and we could recreate the position of all those atoms, you could completely burn me into atoms and then re-assemble and isn't there, isn't it the end, I'm alive again?

Robert Krulwich: Uh, yes, I suppose in a conceptual way, if you get to be really, really, really clever, I guess you could reverse everything. But, maybe we could never get that clever. Or do you think that,

George Church: I mean, I just think it's gonna boil down to cost. The idea of death implies that there is a sharp point at which, a point of no return and I'm saying this gets harder and harder and harder. 

Robert Krulwich: But not impossible.

George Church: And I don't see that it's particularly impossible. I mean, if you've recorded the state of the living thing before it starts going into this impossible decay, you just start from scratch and you build it from scratch. Nothing is really completely lost. Nothing is completely gained.

The main thing that is retained through all this, is the information. 

Robert Krulwich: And George Church thinks that being alive is having all that information so, Jad?

Jad Abumrad: Hmm?

Robert Krulwich: If I knew where all your atoms are right now, you could always come back. That's his view. Oh, God. Come back.

Jad Abumrad: It's a terrible thought for you, isn't it?

Robert Krulwich: From my taste there's a much more pleasant way to think about it. 

Jad Abumrad: What's that?

Robert Krulwich: The other way to think about it, is to think like Bernd Heinrich, a professor at the University of Vermont who got a curious letter, and a wonderful letter, I think, from a student of his named Bill. 

Bernd Heinrich: He was a grad student in Entomology at UC Berkeley when I was teaching there, and he came out and visited at the camp in Maine.

Robert Krulwich: Bernd you see has a cabin in the western part of Maine up on top of a mountain. It's actually very beautiful set in the woods of spruce and pine. Bill the grad student did spend some time there and then he moved back to southern California and a few years passed and then this letter arrived.

Did you have any sense that there was anything wrong before you got the letter or was this out of the blue?

Bernd Heinrich: No, no. I had no sense whatsoever, he was, heal and hearty and then I got that letter. 

Robert Krulwich: So here's how the letter went. 

It begins “Yo Bernd. I have been diagnosed with a severe illness and I'm trying to get my final disposition arranged in case I drop sooner than I hoped. I want an Abbey burial.” This phrase “Abbey Burial” refers to a guy named Edward Abbey who was a very, very famous ecologist and who was brought into the desert by his best friends in a sleeping bag right after he died and just put in the ground. No embalming, no coffin, lightly covered with sand and that's where they left him. That is what Bill wanted to have happen. 

Anyhow the upside is he wrote “one of the options is burial on private property. What are your thoughts on having an old friend as a permanent resident of the camp?” Signed Bill.

In other words, Bill wanted to be laid out on the ground, not even under the ground, at Bernds place in Maine. 

Bernd Heinrich: I wrote him, I don't think I would want to have him laid out in front of my camp in Maine. I think that's, although, you know, if it was a wilderness where you know, people are not gonna be walking around, then you know, I would think more favorably of it. I think right now, I don't think we want to have carcasses lying around in the woods, you know, I definitely don't think that. 

Robert Krulwich: But he did write Bill this, he wrote “I read you loud and clear. When it's my turn, I too want no less for myself, a casket would be for you as it was for Edward Abbey, and unacceptable cage for our otherwise free and ever recycling molecules that would soon become incorporated into the earth's ecosystem."

Bernd Heinrich: You know, I agree with the idea. I just feel that you know, being sealed up, totally removed from all the natural processes, that normally occur with every animal on earth is very somehow frightening. It seems unnatural and, I don't know, it just a-

Robert Krulwich: It's funny you'd use the word frightening, I think most people lock themselves up in a casket because they are frightened to be munched on by worms and beatles and things. 

Bernd Heinrich: Yeah. No, I don't find that frightening at all. I find that comforting to be part of the ecosystem. To be compost into grass. To be compost into ravens. To be compost into flowers and trees, you know, that's a comforting thought to me. 

Robert Krulwich: That's the other way to think about it, is that you're releasing yourself for the chance to be lots and lots and lots and lots of different new and more beautiful lives that will succeed you which-

Jad Abumrad: I don't know.

Robert Krulwich: Wait, wait. I would say that if I could become plants and new animals.

Jad Abumrad: What, would that make you swoon?

Robert Krulwich: No, it would make me feel like I'm, like I'm a collection of molecules, I'm here for a season, 60, 70, 80 years or whatever and then I let my molecules go. I disappear and the molecules go on to new adventures. 

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, but then you're gone. 

Robert Krulwich: Yeah. I'm gone.

Jad Abumrad: You're lost.

Robert Krulwich: Well, I mean-

Jad Abumrad: The you that was here for 60, 70, 80 years whatever, is suddenly not here anymore and there is in that an absence. There's a vacancy. Don't you feel that? 

I mean, I'd love for the beatles and the things and everyone to be together, again. But there is also this sense that when you disappear, you're gone. I mean I understand on some level what George Church was saying to you. I mean, why if you've got the technology, would you want lose something so precious as a friend or a family member or a lover or something? Or a co-host? When you can bring that person back?

And you know what, forget us, because it gets kind of egocentric when you talk about bringing yourself back. But what about collections of ideas that are lost forever, like a language? 

I think the stat is like, one language disappears every 14 days. Disappears from the earth, never to be spoken again because the last speaker of that language dies and then decomposes and is eaten by the beatles, according to your fantasy.

Robert Krulwich: How would you recover them?

Jad Abumrad: Well, who knows. But we were talking to a guy, David Eagleman, he's a neuroscientist. I don't know what a neuroscientist would usually know about such things, but he mentioned this thought experiment that has to do with lost languages. 

David Eagleman: For example, nobody knows what Latin sounds like, right? It's dead because all the people who spoke Latin, there weren't tape recorders around when they were doing it and so essentially we all say, alright, that's, it's dead, it's gone. But it turns out that somebody made a proposal that probably wouldn't work, but it was so stunning in its creativity, that I thought it was very interesting. Which is, he said “look, sometimes these Roman pottery makers, if you can imagine these, wheels that turn, these pottery wheels, and you have a little stylus against the piece of pottery to make the line that spirals down” he said “if there were people talking in the room while that was happening there might be micro vibrations that cause the stylus to move in and out and as a result, it essentially could act as a record. And if you could play it back from these pieces of Roman pottery, you could actually here the people in the room talking in Latin.” Aha! 

Jad Abumrad: You mean, you could play a vase, like a, like an LP and then hear, like, Prothetheis, you know, the potter, you could hear his voice? 

David Eagleman: Precisely. Now the thing is it probably won't work exactly like that. But, what's interesting about the idea is that we're constantly coming up with new technologies where then we can retrieve things that once thought were dead. 

[crosstalk 00:10:29]

In other words we thought the information sort of scattered off into the universe, [crosstalk 00:10:35] and then we're finding with the new technology we're able to [inaudible 00:10:40] bring it all back together. [inaudible 00:10:42]

Robert Krulwich: Whoa. What was that, what was that we just heard?

Jad Abumrad: Those are dead languages coming back. I don't know what that is, it was probably from a sound library.

Robert Krulwich: I see, so all those languages that were disappearing, that's their return?

Jad Abumrad: It was a gesture-

Robert Krulwich: I see.

Jad Abumrad: I was trying to evoke the sense of languages returning from the cosmos.

Robert Krulwich: Okay. Brilliantly done, brilliantly done. 

Jad Abumrad: Alright, smart guy. 

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: You know if you ant to stand for the proposition as you were earlier, that you'd be happy to decompose and become part of mother nature again.

Robert Krulwich: In my time.

Jad Abumrad: Well that's what I was gonna ask you. What if you had the choice right now, to persist, or, I don't know, I, I can't-

Robert Krulwich: Persist, obviously. 

Jad Abumrad: Well, okay then. Let's end with a sort of ode to the persisters. And this one comes from our producer Ellen Horn. 

Speaker 10: So everybody's gonna count out loud.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, set the scene for me. Where are we?

Ellen Horn: Well, we're near Wall street in Manhattan and this is a CPR class, it's a Sunday afternoon.

Jad Abumrad: Okay.

Speaker 10: Everybody ready?

Ellen Horn: There's about 25 students here.

Speaker 10: Begin. 

[crosstalk 00:11:40] Work out loud people. 

Jad Abumrad: And everyone's basically pressing on dummies, is that what's happening?

Ellen Horn: Yeah, they press in the middle of the chest thirty times. [crosstalk 00:11:52] And then they tip the mannequin's head back-

Speaker 12: Tilt, chin lift, good.

Ellen Horn: and blow into the mouth twice. 

But here's the central problem with doing CPR really well. It's the tempo, you need to get the tempo right. If you do it too slow, [crosstalk 00:12:11] you don't get enough pressure up to get the blood moving round the body. And if you do it too fast [crosstalk 00:12:17] then the heart doesn't have time to fill back up. 

Jad Abumrad: And what's the ideal speed? 

Ellen Horn: This. A hundred beats per minute. 

In this class, the class that's just learning CPR, it's hard to hear, but if you listen, [crosstalk 00:12:34] they're just a little bit too fast.

Jad Abumrad: And how exactly do you get people to do a hundred beats per minute? That seems like, abstract or something.

Ellen Horn: Well, it's been shown that if you ask people to think of a song, they always remember it at the right tempo. 

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Ellen Horn: There's this guy, Alson Inaba.

Alson Inaba: I am a pediatric emergency medicine physician in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

Ellen Horn: And he teaches CPR. And he was trying to figure out a good way-

Alson Inaba: To remember what a hundred compressions a minute should feel like when you're doing CPR. So I thought, find a song, a popular song, that had a beat of approximately hundred beats per minute. 

Jad Abumrad: So, what's the song?

Ellen Horn: The song he came up with. 

Alson Inaba: "Stayin' Alive” by the Bee Gees. 

Jad Abumrad: No.

Ellen Horn: Yeah. Yeah.

Alson Inaba: Hopefully you help people stay alive. [crosstalk 00:13:32]

Jad Abumrad: Wow and they did this the class you went to?

Ellen Horn: Yeah. This has caught fire. CPR classes all over the world-

Alson Inaba: Egypt. Argentina. Botswana and Japan.

Ellen Horn: Are using this to teach the right tempo of CPR.

Alson Inaba: Just happened to stumble upon it and, it was I think one of the best teaching tips I came up with in my career so far. 

[crosstalk 00:13:54]

Ellen Horn: There is another song though that has a much simpler, more direct down beat. 

Jad Abumrad: Same tempo?

Ellen Horn: Same Tempo.

And I asked the class to try this song.

Speaker 10: Now remember, it's one and a half to two inches. Remember those numbers.

Jad Abumrad: Wait.

Ellen Horn: It's Queen.

Speaker 10: One, two, three, begin. [crosstalk 00:14:11]

Ellen Horn: Another one bites the dust. 

Jad Abumrad: Oh, that's so wrong. 

[crosstalk 00:14:17]

Queen: And another one's gone, and another one's gone, another one bites the dust. Hey. Hey, I'm gonna get you too, another one bites the dust.

Jad Abumrad: It's got a better beat, in a way, than-

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: The other one.

Robert Krulwich: I guess.

It's certainly more frank.

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

But we should, we should let this podcast die

Robert Krulwich: Say goodbye. 

Yes.

Jad Abumrad: And speaking of which. Just want to urge you before we close to support your public radio stations. Radiolab is carried on more than 200 stations across the country. You can check Radiolab.org to see if your station carries us. If they do, even if they don't, please consider making a gift to support that station because without them, without you, we wouldn't exist. 

We would die. Don't let us die. 

Radiolab is supported by 

Robert Krulwich: The Sloan Foundation.

Jad Abumrad: Yes. Number one Alford P. Sloan and number two, 

Robert Krulwich: The National Science Foundation

Jad Abumrad: And number three, the corporation for public broadcasting. 

I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: Thanks for listening. 

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