Mar 21, 2019


This week Jad and Radiolab alum Tim Howard revisit a favorite episode from 2012.

Because moments of total, world-shaking bliss are not easy to come by. Maybe that's what makes them feel so life-altering when they strike. And so worth chasing. This hour: stories of striving, grasping, tripping, and falling for happiness, perfection, and ideals.  

With Alexander Gamme, Arika Okrent, Richard Sproat, and Ken Libbrecht.

This update was produced with help from Audrey Quinn.

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Jad Abumrad:                      Wait, you're listening-

Speaker 3:                              Okay.

Jad Abumrad:                      Alright.

Speaker 3:                              Okay.

Jad Abumrad:                      Alright.

Speaker 5:                              You're listening to Radiolab.

Speaker 6:                              Radiolab.

Speaker 5:                              From.

Speaker 6:                              WNYC.

Speaker 5:                              At NPR.

Tim Howard:                         Hello hello.

Alexander Gamme:         Hello.

Jad Abumrad:                      Hello hello!

Alexander Gamme:         Hi! How are you?

Jad Abumrad:                      We are super excited to talk with you.

Alexander Gamme:         Oh, same with me. I'm sorry about the delay and so on.

Jad Abumrad:                      Oh it's fine.

Alexander Gamme:         Of course some busy days.

Jad Abumrad:                      Life is crazy.

Alexander Gamme:         Life is crazy. But you were so enthusiastic. I need to talk to these guys, they really mean it.

Jad Abumrad:                      This is Alex.

Alexander Gamme:         Alexander Gamme.

Jad Abumrad:                      Gamme. Are you Norwegian all the way back?

Alexander Gamme:         Yeah. Typical Norwegian.

Jad Abumrad:                      If typical includes things like-

Alexander Gamme:         Biking in the Sahara, climbing Everest, and things like that.

Jad Abumrad:                      He's kind of a professional adventurer. And we got him into the studio because he made a video last year on one of his trips. I've got to tell you, this video, it's maybe the most amazing internet video I have ever seen.

Speaker 9:                              I think so too.

Jad Abumrad:                      So let me just set the scene for you.

Robert Krulwich:               Okay.

Jad Abumrad:                      What you see in the video is this guy Alex kind of moving along, he's on skis. This snowy snowscape. He's filming himself and he's got the camera in his right hand.

Robert Krulwich:               Where is he exactly?

Jad Abumrad:                      Antarctica.

Robert Krulwich:               Oh.

Jad Abumrad:                      He's on a three month trek to the South Pole and back by himself. And what he'd been doing is every couple of days on his trip, every 200 kilometers or so, he would bury stuff in the snow.

Alexander Gamme:         Some fuel, and sometimes a little bit of gear that I didn't use.

Jad Abumrad:                      Was that just to lighten your load?

Alexander Gamme:         Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:                      Because every ounce of unneeded weight has to go.

Robert Krulwich:               Sure.

Jad Abumrad:                      So, in this video, it's Day 86.

Alexander Gamme:         Almost three months since I left.

Jad Abumrad:                      That's three months of walking 10 hours a day.

Alexander Gamme:         And I lost almost 25 kilos.

Jad Abumrad:                      55 pounds. He's exhausted.

Alexander Gamme:         Ohhh. [inaudible]

Jad Abumrad:                      He's come upon his last cache.

Alexander Gamme:         So on the last cache where this video is captured ...

Jad Abumrad:                      What you see is Alex kneel in the snow, start to dig.

Alexander Gamme:         I'm telling that I'm quite hungry.

Jad Abumrad:                      Whatever is in this last cache in the snow, it's been three months since he buried it.

Alexander Gamme:         So I didn't really recall what was there.

Jad Abumrad:                      He hopes it's something good. So he digs up this bag of stuff, starts rifling through it.

Jad Abumrad:                      Some Vaseline, some zinc ointment.

Alexander Gamme:         It's just a mess.

Jad Abumrad:                      Nothing.

Alexander Gamme:         It's pretty much just all trash. [Norwegian]

Jad Abumrad:                      But then ...

Alexander Gamme:         Yaaa! Yaaaaaaaa! Yaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Ahhhhhh!!!! Ha ha! Woohoooo!

Jad Abumrad:                      He holds up ...

Jad Abumrad:                      Double pack of Cheez Doodles.

Alexander Gamme:         Yaaaaa!

Jad Abumrad:                      Then he throws it up in the air.

Alexander Gamme:         Yaaaaaaa!

Jad Abumrad:                      And this is my favorite part. He just freezes. And he's staring off into the distance, almost like, "Did that happen?"

Alexander Gamme:         Is it real?

Jad Abumrad:                      So he starts to dig some more. And then ...

Alexander Gamme:         Ohhhh! Ohhhhhhhh! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Robert Krulwich:               What was it this time?

Alexander Gamme:         A huge chocolate bar. It's milk chocolate. And then it's just like ...

Jad Abumrad:                      He found some Mentos.

Alexander Gamme:         Mentos.

Alexander Gamme:         I find more, and more, and more.

Alexander Gamme:         Ahhh! Ahhhhhhh! Ah ha!

Jad Abumrad:                      Have you ever been that happy in your life?

Alexander Gamme:         Well I've been thinking about that. When did you shout last time you were so happy?

Jad Abumrad:                      I think that's why we've been watching this video over and over again, because none of us can remember. It's like, what stands between you and that feeling, is a really interesting question.

Alexander Gamme:         Yeah. It's three months with hunger.

Jad Abumrad:                      Actually, I think the reason I liked this video so much is not just because he's happy. It's that he somehow stumbled into this moment of perfection.

Alexander Gamme:         It's just like a perfect situation.

Alexander Gamme:         Ah-ha-ha, ha haaa!

Jad Abumrad:                      By being so tired and so hungry, and finding such a stash of candy that he had forgotten that he left, he created a moment of just absolutely complete bliss.

Robert Krulwich:               In this hour of Radiolab, we're going to be searching for moments like Alex had in Antarctica. We're going to be searching for-

Alexander Gamme:         Bliss.

Jad Abumrad:                      Bliss of all different sorts. Perfect moments.

Robert Krulwich:               Perfect worlds.

Jad Abumrad:                      The kind of bliss that slips right through your fingers.

Robert Krulwich:               And the kind of bliss that just might last.

Jad Abumrad:                      And last.

Robert Krulwich:               And last.

Jad Abumrad:                      Alright, we're going to begin with a story that kind of inspired this show. We would have never done a show about the word 'bliss' were it not for the following story, which is about a bliss.

Robert Krulwich:               What do you mean, 'a'?

Jad Abumrad:                      That'll make sense in two seconds. Story comes from our producer Tim Howard, and it begins with a box of tapes.

Tim Howard:                         Alright, so check it out. This is-

Jad Abumrad:                      We're in my office and you've got a rectangular package here. What is this?

Tim Howard:                         It is a very old-looking box. It doesn't look like much, it's just about 15 cassettes. Tape number six, 'Singing and Playing to Friends in America'.

Jad Abumrad:                      Okay, so this is Charles.

Richard:                                   Charles [inaudible] Bliss. An amazing character.

Jad Abumrad:                      And that's Richard.

Richard:                                   Richard [inaudible 00:07:07].

Jad Abumrad:                      He's the fellow who gave me the cassettes. He was a friend of Charles.

Richard:                                   Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:                      So these were just sitting in his attic or something?

Tim Howard:                         Garage, I think.

Richard:                                   He looked like, I suppose, a little gnome, a little leprechaun almost.

Charles Bliss:                       To life, to life, l'chaim.

Richard:                                   He was short, bald, and laughter the whole time.

Richard:                                   He was a lovable character. Simple as that.

Jad Abumrad:                      This is my favorite one.

Jad Abumrad:                      Just explain why we're talking about this guy.

Tim Howard:                         Sure. Because these tapes tell an amazing story about a guy who really embodied his name. And he tried to save the world. But ultimately, just tried too hard.

Charles Bliss:                       The turning point in my life came in 1908. At that time-

Tim Howard:                         We can start the story here. This is from a lecture that he gave decades later. So the story goes, it's 1908, and he's a little kid living in what's now the Ukraine.

Jad Abumrad:                      Okay.

Tim Howard:                         And his name is Carl Blitz.

Jad Abumrad:                      Not Charles Bliss?

Tim Howard:                         Not Charles Bliss. Carl Blitz. That's his original name. And little Carl-

Arika Okrent:                        Was fascinated by tales of discovery and adventure.

Arika Okrent:                        My name is Arika Okrent.

Tim Howard:                         Arika wrote about Charles Bliss in this great book called-

Arika Okrent:                        In the Land of Invented Languages.

Tim Howard:                         Getting back to the story, one day she says, when Carl was 11-

Arika Okrent:                        A lecture came through town about some-

Charles Bliss:                       [inaudible] polar expedition.

Arika Okrent:                        Polar expedition.

Tim Howard:                         Two explorers talking about their trek across the North Pole. And he was so inspired by what he saw and heard at that lecture, that even decades later he couldn't talk about it.

Charles Bliss:                       And my father took me to this, excuse me ...

Tim Howard:                         Without getting choked up.

Charles Bliss:                       [inaudible] my father took me to this lecture. And there I saw, men who left their warm homes, their secure existence, and went out into the Arctic, into the icy snow in almost certain death. For what? For what? In search of knowledge. For an idea.

Tim Howard:                         As he tells it on those tapes, that was the beginning of his big idea that was going to change the world. Fast forward a few years.

Charles Bliss:                       I came to Vienna after the First World War.

Arika Okrent:                        He did end up going to the Technical University of Vienna.

Charles Bliss:                       I was suddenly discovered to be the best mandolin player in Austria. At one time, I played with the full opera orchestra, under the action of the composer [inaudible 00:09:39]. Ah, those were the days.

Tim Howard:                         And then, everything changed. In 1938 ...

Speaker 15:                           German troops swell across the Austrian border, on the historic-

Tim Howard:                         The Nazis came to town.

Arika Okrent:                        Nazis came to town, he was sent to Dachau, and then Buchenwald.

Tim Howard:                         The concentration camps.

Charles Bliss:                       One feeling, one vision, desire, to end my life.

Tim Howard:                         All around him, people were being worked to death, or outright exterminated. But, his wife Claire was a German Catholic with connections.

Charles Bliss:                       And Claire my good wife smuggled my mandolin and my guitar into the concentration camp. I became so famous amongst the Nazis that for instance, our block furor would come into our [inaudible] and say, "Blitz, [German 00:10:28]"

Tim Howard:                         And you could say that it was here in Buchenwald that Carl started to develop his ideas about language. About the ways that you can manipulate words. For instance, there was this one song that all the prisoners sang.

Charles Bliss:                       [inaudible] one of the saddest songs that I can ever [inaudible]

Tim Howard:                         It had the saddest lyrics in the world. At a certain point, Carl started to play around with this song. He'd swap out some of the sad lyrics for some jokes, sing it for his fellow prisoners.

Charles Bliss:                       And they laughed, and laughed, and laughed. And forgot for a few minutes that they are in the darkest and the most terrible holes on Earth.

Tim Howard:                         And on the flip side, every evening, the guards would march all the prisoners outside. Force them to stand out there in the cold in front of these loudspeakers. Make them listen to these speeches.

Tim Howard:                         Speeches of Hitler and Goebbels screaming Nazi slogans. Like-

Tim Howard:                         Which means, "Germany above all".

Charles Bliss:                       [German] There are certain words which make you mad. Which drives you mad.

Tim Howard:                         But after about a year-

Arika Okrent:                        His wife somehow wrangled a British visa for him, and he-

Tim Howard:                         Gets out.

Charles Bliss:                       Thank heavens, those dreadful times are gone. And now I am play here for you an improvisation as it comes into my mind.

Arika Okrent:                        In 1939, he went to Britain-

Charles Bliss:                       And got a job as a manager of a factory.

Tim Howard:                         But he arrived in England just as ... the Blitz begins. The Germans start to bomb every major city in England.

Speaker 17:                           The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air raid siren.

Tim Howard:                         And every time he'd introduce himself to somebody new, they'd shudder. "That can't be your name." Because blitzkrieg, it had that association.

Arika Okrent:                        Yes.

Charles Bliss:                       You can't go around there with a name like Blitz. So I changed from the war-like Blitz, to the peaceful Bliss.

Tim Howard:                         That was how he became Charles Bliss.

Arika Okrent:                        Bliss has all the right associations. So he went forward with the feeling that he was now Bliss, and would bring happiness to the world.

Tim Howard:                         And a year later, he and his wife end up in China, in Shanghai, where there was a big population of exiled Jews.

Arika Okrent:                        Shanghai was the only place that would take them at that time.

Charles Bliss:                       And there in China, I got the opportunity of my lifetime.

Tim Howard:                         And now we come to his big idea.

Charles Bliss:                       I realized what I did not know, that the Chinese have a different way of writing.

Arika Okrent:                        He became enraptured by the Chinese writing that he saw.

Tim Howard:                         The Chinese use symbols. And each symbol is a word. And he writes about having this epiphany when he saw the Chinese symbol for 'man'.

Arika Okrent:                        He saw that the Chinese written form of 'man' sort of looks like a man.

Tim Howard:                         It looks like a stick figure man. And it means man. He doesn't even know what the Chinese word for 'man' is, he doesn't know how to say 'man', but that doesn't matter. He is skipping the word and going directly into the meaning.

Arika Okrent:                        So here was a way of getting beyond language. You could think the word in any language if you see it in the symbol.

Tim Howard:                         And that was a revelation.

Jad Abumrad:                      Why?

Tim Howard:                         Well ... I mean, think back to the concentration camps, when they were outside in front of those loudspeakers listening to Hitler saying stuff like, [German] "Germany above all". That phrase Charles knew that it actually predated the Nazis.

Charles Bliss:                       That was coined 100 years earlier in 1848.

Tim Howard:                         And originally it was meant as a rallying cry to bring together all these separate principalities.

Charles Bliss:                       The Kingdom of Bavaria, the Kingdom of [inaudible] the Kingdom of-

Tim Howard:                         That spoke German, but these were not one country. So when they said [inaudible] it meant unification.

Charles Bliss:                       A unified Germany.

Tim Howard:                         A nation above the states.

Jad Abumrad:                      Oh, so it wasn't necessarily an aggressive thing.

Tim Howard:                         No. But ...

Charles Bliss:                       But Hitler turned this around.

Tim Howard:                         Hitler changed the meaning. Instead of the nation above all states, he changed it to, the nation-

Charles Bliss:                       Everything, above all the countries of the world.

Tim Howard:                         Above all other nations.

Jad Abumrad:                      Oh.

Tim Howard:                         So you see what happened. This phrase that started meaning one thing, unification, became the opposite.

Jad Abumrad:                      Yeah.

Tim Howard:                         This is what the Nazis did.

Charles Bliss:                       False words. Lies.

Tim Howard:                         They would bend words to obscure the truth of what they were doing. Extermination? They would call it 'solution'. By doing that, as he saw it, they were able to convince good, sane people, his neighbors, to go along with the genocide.

Charles Bliss:                       And I realized that something must be done to make language more towards the nature.

Arika Okrent:                        Words were the problem. Words made people do cruel things to each other.

Charles Bliss:                       They tear our society apart.

Arika Okrent:                        Words were dangerous instruments.

Charles Bliss:                       They cause violence, they cause wars.

Tim Howard:                         So when he saw the Chinese symbol for 'man', he thought, "This might be the answer."

Charles Bliss:                       And the idea came up to me that I would invent symbols.

Tim Howard:                         Like the Chinese symbols, but even clearer.

Charles Bliss:                       Which are so simple and pictorial that even children can read them.

Arika Okrent:                        If he could sit down and work it out, you would look at the symbol and know what it meant instantly, regardless of what language you spoke.

Tim Howard:                         You wouldn't even need words, which he felt-

Arika Okrent:                        Could be manipulated.

Tim Howard:                         You could just have the symbol-

Arika Okrent:                        And get straight to the truth of the matter.

Tim Howard:                         And the way he saw it, right off the bat you'd have all of these benefits.

Charles Bliss:                       Frenchmen and Fins, Englishmen and Estonians-

Tim Howard:                         Language barriers would be out the window.

Arika Okrent:                        Everything from traffic accidents to health problems-

Tim Howard:                         Could be avoided, he thought-

Arika Okrent:                        If his symbol system would just be adopted.

Speaker 18:                           He had this vision that high-level political and commercial negotiations would be done in symbols.

Tim Howard:                         Did he say anything as grand as like, war wouldn't happen?

Arika Okrent:                        Constantly.

Tim Howard:                         And even of course ...

Speaker 18:                           He reckoned Hitler wouldn't have happened, basically. That if the German people had understood these symbols, they wouldn't have copped Goebbels propaganda. Now that's a pretty tall order, but it did seem to be what he thought.

Arika Okrent:                        Everything could be cured by this system.

Tim Howard:                         He's the biggest dreamer ever.

Arika Okrent:                        Yeah.

Tim Howard:                         How did he go about doing this?

Arika Okrent:                        He started working out what the basic lines and shapes would be. He also wanted to make sure you could produce it with a typewriter. So it had to be a limited set of shapes out of which everything could be created.

Tim Howard:                         Okay, so he works on it for seven years.

Jad Abumrad:                      Seven years?

Tim Howard:                         And he comes up with ... that.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wow, that is a big one.

Tim Howard:                         Yes. This massive book called-

Arika Okrent:                        Bliss Symbolics.

Tim Howard:                         Semantology: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.

Jad Abumrad:                      That says it all.

Tim Howard:                         Where he explains the logic of his system. For example, here is a symbol for sword, which looks exactly like a sword. And then, sword plus a forward arrow means, attack.

Jad Abumrad:                      I buy it.

Tim Howard:                         And then if you see a symbol for sword and another symbol for sword, and they're crossed, then that means war.

Jad Abumrad:                      So that's the idea, that you take these basic elemental symbols and combine them?

Tim Howard:                         Exactly. Alright, here's another one. This symbol here, is the top half of a circle.

Jad Abumrad:                      Like a little rainbow with just one line.

Tim Howard:                         That means mind.

Jad Abumrad:                      Mind.

Tim Howard:                         It looks like the top of a skull.

Jad Abumrad:                      Ah.

Tim Howard:                         Now, if I were to take that symbol for mind, and I were to go like, this. I were to put inside it a question mark. That means ...

Jad Abumrad:                      I don't know? Or ...

Tim Howard:                         Doubt.

Jad Abumrad:                      Doubt.

Tim Howard:                         And there are also ways to indicate verbs, and adjectives, and first person, second person, the past, the future. But kind of the one thing that it did that no other language or symbol system or anything has attempted to do, at least as far as I know, is that it would make clear when something was what he called a human evaluation. You know, basically an opinion. What you would do is you would put this little 'V' symbol, and you would put it above the symbol.

Jad Abumrad:                      And why 'V'?

Tim Howard:                         Well because, you know how 'V' is balanced on a point, and it's unstable, it wobbles. To him, that represents opinions, human evaluations. Anything that comes out of the mind.

Jad Abumrad:                      Hm.

Tim Howard:                         Or take metaphors.

Charles Bliss:                       If you say something which is a metaphor-

Tim Howard:                         Me-taphor, as he says.

Charles Bliss:                       You must put up the metaphor sign.

Tim Howard:                         To alert the reader, "Do not take this literally."

Charles Bliss:                       Stop. Metaphor ahead.

Jad Abumrad:                      Not exactly bulletproof, but I can see the thinking there.

Tim Howard:                         I actually think it's pretty impressive.

Jad Abumrad:                      Okay, so what happens next?

Tim Howard:                         Well, after he finishes this, and he and his wife are living in Australia at the time.

Arika Okrent:                        They spent all their savings on producing this book, and sent it out to-

Tim Howard:                         Professors, government officials.

Arika Okrent:                        Heads of state.

Tim Howard:                         Something like 6000 people.

Arika Okrent:                        And they waited for the orders to start rolling in.

Tim Howard:                         And ... no response. From anybody.

Arika Okrent:                        And then they had nothing.

Jad Abumrad:                      Can't say I didn't see that coming.

Tim Howard:                         Yeah.

Arika Okrent:                        And with great disappointment, Charles went to work as a welder in a factory.

Speaker 18:                           At General Motors [inaudible 00:19:48], he was working on the production line almost as a robot.

Tim Howard:                         And a year later, his wife died.

Arika Okrent:                        He had fought in World War I, he had been in a concentration camp, he had lived in exile. But he says this was the lowest point of his life.

Tim Howard:                         Until one day, 1971-

Arika Okrent:                        As he said, this letter floated onto his desk, with this picture of this beautiful dimpled child, proudly using his symbols.

Shirley:                                     Yeah, it was a poster.

Tim Howard:                         A poster?

Shirley:                                     A poster.

Tim Howard:                         This is Shirley.

Shirley:                                     Shirley McNaughton.

Tim Howard:                         And at the time, she was a nurse at a place called the OCCC.

Shirley:                                     The Ontario Crippled Children's Center, a name that we were very happy to leave behind us.

Tim Howard:                         They've since changed the name.

Shirley:                                     I started there in 1968.

Tim Howard:                         And Shirley was part of this group of teachers and nurses who worked with these kids who suffered from cerebral palsy.

Shirley:                                     If you have cerebral palsy, it's the motor control from the brain that's been affected.

Tim Howard:                         Which meant that they had trouble moving their arms or legs. And even in some cases-

Shirley:                                     They couldn't speak.

Tim Howard:                         They couldn't form words. And in a film that was made of this class, you see these young kids.

Shirley:                                     Children from five to seven.

Tim Howard:                         All sitting in wheelchairs, and they're watching the teacher. She talks to them, and you hear them try to talk to her, but they can't.

Shirley:                                     These kids had no way to communicate.

Tim Howard:                         Couldn't they learn how to read?

Shirley:                                     They could if you knew what they were understanding, and they have no way to communicate that to you.

Tim Howard:                         The only thing all these kids had were pictures that they could point at.

Shirley:                                     They had a picture of a toilet, picture of food, picture of a drink, picture of a bed. They were limited to that kind of communication. But I knew they were bright.

Tim Howard:                         But if they couldn't move, and they couldn't speak, how would you know?

Shirley:                                     My insight on that was the twinkle in their eyes.

Tim Howard:                         But she says, a lot of doctors and nurses at the time-

Shirley:                                     Thought I was crazy.

Tim Howard:                         Thought there really wasn't much going on inside these kids' heads.

Shirley:                                     They thought I was projecting into the children.

Tim Howard:                         What she needed, she said, was a way to get through to them. So one day, she was at the library with a colleague, and they come across this dusty old volume that had never been checked out, called, you guessed it ...

Shirley:                                     Bliss Symbolics.

Tim Howard:                         And what did you first think when you saw it?

Shirley:                                     Oh boy, can I get back to the group? How fast can I get back to the group with this? This is exactly what we need.

Tim Howard:                         So do you remember what the first symbols were?

Shirley:                                     I think it was 'I' and 'you'.

Tim Howard:                         'I' looked kind of like a standing person.

Shirley:                                     An upright line.

Tim Howard:                         Small horizontal line at the base.

Shirley:                                     Yeah.

Tim Howard:                         Next to it-

Shirley:                                     The number 1.

Tim Howard:                         Which means, first person. 'You' is the same symbol, but with a number 2 for second person.

Shirley:                                     And then they had to have a verb. And it was 'love'.

Tim Howard:                         Heart with an arrow through it.

Shirley:                                     So now they've got a sentence, "I love you". One of our mothers says it's the happiest moment she's ever had with her child, was when her child came home and said, "I love you".

Tim Howard:                         Surely and her staff started to add more symbols.

Shirley:                                     They caught on.

Tim Howard:                         And pretty soon they created this giant laminated chart.

Shirley:                                     It had I and you and he and she, we and they. Then it had mother, father, grandma, grandpa, doctor, nurse, teacher, therapist, postman, fireman, librarian, dentist.

Tim Howard:                         Eventually they added adjectives.

Shirley:                                     Happy, sad, frustrated. All the verbs, we had love, like, hate, want, need, understand.

Tim Howard:                         Pretty soon-

Arika Okrent:                        The kids started to do amazing things with symbol combinations.

Tim Howard:                         They started to improvise. Shirley remembers asking one kid-

Shirley:                                     "Terry Martin, what did you want to be for Halloween?"

Tim Howard:                         Terry pointed first at the symbol for creature.

Shirley:                                     A creature, not a person.

Tim Howard:                         Then he pointed at the symbol for-

Shirley:                                     Drinks.

Tim Howard:                         Then-

Shirley:                                     Blood.

Tim Howard:                         Then-

Shirley:                                     Night.

Tim Howard:                         A creature who drinks blood at night.

Shirley:                                     He wanted to be a vampire. He spelled a new word.

Tim Howard:                         It sounds like an explosion with these kids.

Shirley:                                     It was. It was.

Tim Howard:                         For the first time, she says, she could actually talk to them. Know who they were.

Shirley:                                     Yeah, you got to know who the leaders were in the classroom, those that wanted to help others, those who copied others.

Tim Howard:                         And it was around then that she and the other teachers decided to send Charles Bliss that letter.

Shirley:                                     We were sharing our excitement for this gift he'd given to the children. You know, he was in Australia, he was an elderly man. We had no thought that he would come and visit us. Didn't enter our mind.

Tim Howard:                         But Charles Bliss?

Speaker 18:                           He was delighted.

Speaker 18:                           He had battled for so long for recognition, and now he had it.

Arika Okrent:                        He mortgages his house, and flies over.

Charles Bliss:                       And I was so happy there, to play my mandolin, and told them jokes.

Arika Okrent:                        He dances around and kisses everybody effusively.

Charles Bliss:                       And they laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Hello.

Tim Howard:                         He had long conversations with the kids.

Shirley:                                     In symbols. He was very happy about the children.

Charles Bliss:                       Joy. Joy. Joy.

Tim Howard:                         But somewhere along the way, he notices something. Shirley and the teachers had begun to augment his system. They'd begun to add their own symbols, such as-

Shirley:                                     The opposite meaning symbol.

Tim Howard:                         This allowed the kids to take one of Bliss' standard symbols and just invert the meaning.

Shirley:                                     Opposite of happy? Sad. Opposite of up? Down. Opposite of in? Out.

Tim Howard:                         This would effectively-

Shirley:                                     Double the number of adjectives.

Tim Howard:                         Which would be great for the kids.

Shirley:                                     And we developed rules.

Tim Howard:                         For how to combine symbols, for how to be more precise with the symbols. She threw in some new pronouns that were missing.

Shirley:                                     The difference between he, and him, and his.

Tim Howard:                         In short-

Shirley:                                     I would make the adaptations I needed to make. From the very beginning, we were using it to meet the children's needs.

Tim Howard:                         Their specific needs.

Shirley:                                     And of course that was not what he had in his mind.

Tim Howard:                         He wanted a system that was universal. Every change that she made created a separate dialect.

Shirley:                                     He would get very emotional about it.

Tim Howard:                         So when he got back to Australia, he started-

Shirley:                                     Writing all these letters.

Tim Howard:                         Basically taking issue with her changes and her failure to understand how his system works. Meanwhile, thanks to Shirley, word about Bliss' symbols had spread way beyond Canada, to Hungary, France, Sweden, Israel, Zimbabwe.

Jad Abumrad:                      Zimbabwe?

Tim Howard:                         Yeah. And then Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Bermuda, Guam, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Hungary, Switzerland, Venezuela, Madagascar, Yugoslavia.

Jad Abumrad:                      It spread to all these places?

Tim Howard:                         Yeah. And in each place, the symbols would inevitably get tweaked to suit that country. For example, in Israel, because the writing goes from right to left, the Bliss symbols went from right to left. But what really pained him the most, what really got him, was that these teachers were using his symbols-

Shirley:                                     As a step toward English.

Tim Howard:                         Or French, or German, or Hebrew, or whatever. It was just a way to get the kids to their native languages.

Shirley:                                     The teachers always saw it-

Tim Howard:                         The way they saw it, you start the kids on Bliss.

Shirley:                                     And then you introduce reading, letters, and eventually they're fully literate.

Tim Howard:                         At which point, you don't need the Bliss symbols. This was the ultimate insult to him. They were using his system to bring these kids back to the very thing that he was trying to get everyone away from.

Jad Abumrad:                      Evil words.

Tim Howard:                         Yeah.

Charles Bliss:                       I tried to explain it to them. They don't want to listen to me. They look through me. What should I do? I don't know. I don't know.

Tim Howard:                         And it's right about this point in the story that you start to hear a different Charles Bliss.

Charles Bliss:                       [German] has perverted my work. Has perverted, and perverted, and perverted.

Jad Abumrad:                      Is he saying 'perverted'?

Tim Howard:                         Yeah.

Charles Bliss:                       She smiles, she beguiles, and she lies.

Tim Howard:                         He kept sending Shirley and the other teachers letters. And the letters got angrier, and angrier.

Shirley:                                     This was not what the language was for. This was a universal language that had nothing to do with spoken language. You are ruining my system, you are abusing it.

Tim Howard:                         And eventually, he decided to take matters into his own hands. And he traveled back to Canada-

Shirley:                                     And he started going to the various centers-

Tim Howard:                         Where the kids were using his symbols.

Shirley:                                     And saying horrible things about me. And getting them very upset. That's when I got upset. I got upset when he got them upset.

Tim Howard:                         Not long after, Shirley received a summons.

Charles Bliss:                       I have taken to court the OCCC [inaudible]

Jad Abumrad:                      Wait, he sued them?

Tim Howard:                         Yup.

Charles Bliss:                       I added two more defendants, Mrs. Shirley McNaughton-

Tim Howard:                         On the tapes he even suggests that he's going to have Shirley put away.

Charles Bliss:                       For her whole life.

Tim Howard:                         For life.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wow. Why was he so upset with her in particular?

Tim Howard:                         Well because, by this time, she'd started-

Shirley:                                     The international organization, BCI.

Tim Howard:                         Bliss Symbol Communications International.

Shirley:                                     And-

Tim Howard:                         She felt like this was a totally unique and powerful tool which could and should transform lives around the world. And more teachers needed to adopt it.

Shirley:                                     Definitely.

Tim Howard:                         What was he asking for?

Shirley:                                     He wanted us to use the symbols in his way.

Tim Howard:                         So in 1975, the BCI won a license agreement to use the symbols and the workbooks for the kids. But Charles Bliss-

Charles Bliss:                       They should all be [inaudible]

Tim Howard:                         Didn't give up.

Charles Bliss:                       They should all be [inaudible 00:29:55].

Tim Howard:                         He published endless tirades and sent them out to anybody who would listen.

Charles Bliss:                       Please unite in helping to eradicate all falsifications of the Bliss symbol system.

Tim Howard:                         All in all, this went on for over a decade.

Speaker 17:                           And the administration of the program where Shirley was working was desperate to make him go away. He had basically destroyed the program.

Tim Howard:                         And so, in 1982, he and the BCI finally come to an agreement.

Shirley:                                     It was a financial settlement that satisfied him.

Tim Howard:                         What was the financial settlement?

Shirley:                                     $160,000.

Tim Howard:                         Wow.

Shirley:                                     You know, we were a little program in the basement of the Ontario Crippled Children's Center. We were just a classroom.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wow. So a guy who wanted to save the world ends up robbing a bunch of disabled kids? I mean, that's kind of putting it crudely, but that's how it feels.

Tim Howard:                         Basically that's the ... yeah.

Jad Abumrad:                      Did the symbols ever go anywhere?

Shirley:                                     Well, there was a lot of excitement about it in the beginning, but it never spread very far. It's used now at a few schools in Canada and Sweden, a couple other places. But it never went very far, because he was constantly taking it down at every turn.

Tim Howard:                         But here's what I find most surprising. When I talk to Shirley, she didn't have any bitterness toward him. Not even in the worst moments.

Shirley:                                     When we were having the final legal action, we'd go through that in the morning. And as the lawyers were packing up their papers, Charles Bliss would reach across the table and he'd say, "Shirley, will you help me?"

Tim Howard:                         So she'd go to lunch with him, sit with him.

Shirley:                                     And then he asked me if I would come to his hotel that night and put the eardrops in his ears. And I did that every night he was involved with this thing. That's just the way it was.

Tim Howard:                         And it wasn't just that she takes care of people for a living. She felt and still feels that Charles Bliss had created something really new in the world. She even told me that, when she uses Bliss symbols, she actually thinks differently.

Shirley:                                     Yes, definitely.

Jad Abumrad:                      Really?

Shirley:                                     Definitely.

Tim Howard:                         What's different?

Shirley:                                     I just think so much more about what a word means. And it's like poetry in its purest form. I've been playing with stained glass down here in my retirement, and you can just take the symbols and put them into one composite. And they say things that only art can say. It's beautiful. They transmit a meaning that is beyond any words.

Jad Abumrad:                      Thanks to producer Tim Howard and Arika Okrent author of In the Land of Invented Languages. We'll be right back.

Libby:                                        Bliss is having friends and family you can rely on. My name is Libby Graham, and I am calling from the side of the road in Dallas Texas, awaiting rescue.

Ginger:                                     This is Ginger, a socially awkward introvert from Cabot, Arkansas. Bliss is one day in which I do not have to interact with another human being.

Speaker 22:                           Bliss is political ignorance. This is Mahmoud from Montreal.

Speaker 23:                           Bliss is your baby sleeping in your arms.

Arika Okrent:                        Hi, this is Arika Okrent. [inaudible] Radiolab is supported in part-

Speaker 24:                           Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

Arika Okrent:                        And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

Speaker 24:                           More information about Sloan can be found at www.sloan-

Arika Okrent:                        .org. Radiolab is produced by-

Speaker 24:                           Wnyc-

Arika Okrent:                        And distributed by-

Speaker 24:                           NPR.

Arika Okrent:                        Hope that works for you. Thanks.

Speaker 25:                           End of message.

Robert Krulwich:               Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab 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. And right now, Radiolab listeners can try Zip Recruiter for free at Once again that's

Olivia Fritz:                            This is Olivia Fritz calling from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Radiolab is supported by Rothy's. Rothy's is the everyday flat for life on the go. It's stylish, classic, comfortable, and comes in four fashionable styles for women. The flat, the point, the loafer, and the sneaker. Fun designs and patterns while still looking polished and professional, with new colors launched every few weeks. Best of all, Rothy's are made from recycled plastic water bottles, and completely machine washable. So you can feel good about wearing them every single day. Go to and enter code: RADIOLAB, to get your new favorite flats and free shipping.

Alec Baldwin:                       I'm Alec Baldwin. Join me for a live taping of Here's the Thing, with my special guest, Itzhak Perlman. I'll be talking with the legendary violinist about his life and his music. Monday, February 18th, at NYU's [inaudible] Center. Tickets at

Jad Abumrad:                      Wait wait wait, don't, shhh. Let me just hit record. Okay, what were you saying spontaneously a moment ago? Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:               I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:                      This is Radiolab, and today-

Robert Krulwich:               Bliss.

Jad Abumrad:                      And in our last segment we met a guy who dreamt of a perfect world, where words could never muck things up. Got a little carried away.

Robert Krulwich:               Yeah, so let's forget about dreams.

Jad Abumrad:                      Forget about it.

Robert Krulwich:               Now we're going to look for perfection right here in the physical world.

Latif Nasser:                         Okay, so this story-

Jad Abumrad:                      And we're going to do it with the perfect person-

Robert Krulwich:               Latif Nasser.

Latif Nasser:                         It begins with a birthday present.

Jad Abumrad:                      Mmm.

Latif Nasser:                         It's February 9th, 1880, six miles outside the tiny town of Jericho, Vermont. And we're on a farm, a family farm. The Bentley family farm. And this scrawny 15 year old kid named Wilson gets a microscope from his mother. So it's February, and it's Vermont, and so naturally the first thing this kid does is he grabs a handful of snow, picks out a single flake, and he puts it under the microscope. And what he sees is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. It's ethereal and perfect. He calls them masterpieces, as if they're these great works of art.

Jad Abumrad:                      He calls them that in his 15 year old diary?

Latif Nasser:                         Well, looking back he talked about that moment and what he was thinking when he sort of first saw it. But obviously, within minutes or maybe even seconds, these masterpieces just disappeared without leaving any evidence that they ever existed. They just sort of evaporate. And as he remembers it, he sort of decides then and there that he's going to dedicate his whole life to documenting these masterpieces. Otherwise no one will ever know they even existed.

Jad Abumrad:                      He's going to spend his whole life documenting snowflakes?

Latif Nasser:                         Yeah.

Robert Krulwich:               It's a good life, Jad. And it pays well.

Latif Nasser:                         Right, that's exactly what his father thought. His father thought he was just lazy and didn't want to do the farming chores.

Robert Krulwich:               I see. His father says, "Milk the goats." And he goes, "No dad. The beauty. The beauty."

Latif Nasser:                         Right, right. And apparently he was really good at digging potatoes. But he just sort of was so busy futzing around with his microscope that he ... you know.

Jad Abumrad:                      I don't like this kid, I don't like him.

Robert Krulwich:               [inaudible] your work ethic.

Latif Nasser:                         It does.

Robert Krulwich:               So what happens next?

Latif Nasser:                         So he takes his microscope and he moves it to this unheated woodshed behind the house. And he starts sketching these snowflakes, right? And while he's sketching, he can't even breathe because he was worried that his breath would melt his specimen. So he's sort of holding his breath and drawing these extremely complex crystals that can take you maybe an hour to draw. But depending on the temperature, the humidity, the size of the crystal, he had at most five minutes. At the end of that, he looks at them all, and he's not satisfied. He just felt like he wasn't doing it justice, what he calls these miracles of beauty. So Bentley persuades his mother, who persuades his father, to buy him a camera.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wait, wait, wait. 1880. We're in February 1880. Have we entered in the era of picture-taking?

Latif Nasser:                         Just barely. And for a farming family this was a lot of money. But they buy it for him, and he gets it, and he jerry-rigs it to the microscope. And at age 19, Wilson Bentley is the first person ever in history to photograph a snowflake.

Robert Krulwich:               Okay, I'm going to queue the snowflake celebration music here.

Latif Nasser:                         Right. From then on, basically for the next 46 winters until he died, every snowfall, every blizzard, this guy Bentley would stand in the doorway of his little shack, holding out a wooden tray with thick mittens, because he would wear these, they're almost like oven mitts to make sure that none of his body heat would leak out and inadvertently melt any of the snow. So he'd sort of stand there and give it a once over with his eye. If nothing was promising, he basically had a turkey feather, and he would just wipe it clean with his turkey feather, until he did find something he liked. And then he would take this tiny little wooden rod, and he would just sort of really delicately tap the center of the crystal, and really, really, really gently lift it off, and transfer it onto a glass slide, so that he could put it under the microscope, and he could photograph it.

Latif Nasser:                         Over the course of his life he basically photographed about 5000 snow crystals. For his whole life he was just a farmer doing this as a hobby, but he sold copies of these photos for five cents a pop to places like Harvard, and the British Museum, and the US Weather Bureau, research journals, magazines like Nature and National Geographic. I mean, you've already seen the photos. You've gotten them on a Christmas card. They're on your ugly Christmas sweater in your closet somewhere.

Jad Abumrad:                      Robert's wearing a shirt with them on right now.

Robert Krulwich:               Yeah.

Latif Nasser:                         They're everywhere. They're beautiful, symmetrical, really clean and complex. A lot of the greatest scientists who ever lived, like Descartes, and Kepler, and Hooke, they all tried to sketch and draw and capture the essence of snowflakes, but none of them could do it as well as this one obsessive loner from Jericho, Vermont, whose photos were perceived to be more faithful to nature than anybody else. But that was until this other guy came on the scene, this German guy.

Robert Krulwich:               Queue the other guy Germanic theme music.

Latif Nasser:                         Yes. Yes. He was a German meteorologist named Gustav Hellmann.

Robert Krulwich:               Gustav Hellmann.

Latif Nasser:                         Not of the mayonnaise fame, I don't believe.

Robert Krulwich:               I hadn't even thought of that actually.

Jad Abumrad:                      So Hellmann, is he a contemporary of Bentley?

Latif Nasser:                         Yeah, he is. And he's working on his own book about weather. And so he hires a micro-photographer who's another German guy named Richard Neuhaus.

Robert Krulwich:               A micro, is that a very teeny photographer who he kept on his desk?

Latif Nasser:                         Yeah, he's microscopic himself, and he just takes normal sized photographs. Anyhow, he hires this guy. And they take a bunch of photos using basically similar technology, a camera and an electroscope essentially. But what they find is totally different. They do not find the elegant, symmetrical, ideal snow crystals that Bentley found. The crystals they found were flawed, lopsided, usually broken. And the way I think of it, it was like a Martian who had only ever seen glossy fashion magazines, had just been given some random family photo album. And it was like, "Oh wow, they're not so pretty. These are kind of ugly." You know?

Jad Abumrad:                      These humans.

Latif Nasser:                         These humans, they're not all symmetrical. But these Germans, they basically called him out. They basically thought Bentley was a fraud. There was a particular way that Bentley prepared his photographs. What he would do is he would use a pen knife to scrape the negative around the snow crystal, which is what gave it that nice black background, because he thought it would kind of put it in starker relief. And the German guys said it's misleading, that it kind of mutilates the snowflakes.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wait, so he's photographing these snowflakes and then significantly messing with the photograph?

Latif Nasser:                         Exactly right. Exactly right. So here's a quote from the photographer who said, "In many images, Bentley did not limit himself to improving the outlines. He let his knife play deep inside the heart of the crystals, so that fully arbitrary figures emerged."

Robert Krulwich:               Ohhhh. Well I don't know, that doesn't seem so ... that's no longer [inaudible] is it?

Latif Nasser:                         Well that's the question. So they basically lobbed this, and this is going in these journals. But Bentley basically launches a counterattack. And what he says is, in fact, those guys are wrong. That not correcting your photographs, and he used this word, perverse. To him, why wouldn't you remove specks of dust or other imperfections? Why photograph a broken snowflake when you could photograph a complete one? So this is a quote from Bentley, he said, "A true scientist wishes above all to have his photographs as true to nature as possible. And if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified."

Jad Abumrad:                      So he felt his retouched snowflakes were truer than the normal ones?

Latif Nasser:                         Yeah, yeah exactly. The scientist is supposed to be this very experienced, almost like a sage who has seen every different variation on a snowflake, but can bring that all together in one drawing, one sketch, one photograph. And that's the true snowflake.

Robert Krulwich:               So if I brought him a slightly gloppy snowflake and said, "Look, this is what fell on my nose, and this is a true snowflake because it actually fell from the sky. It was un-enhanced." He would say that snowflake ...

Latif Nasser:                         He would say, "Oh Robert, you're an amateur. This is not good work. This is an aberration, this is an abnormality. Why would you choose to highlight an abnormality as opposed to this true ideal snowflake?"

Jad Abumrad:                      And does that one exist? I mean that's the key question for me. Does the ideal snowflake exist in nature?

Robert Krulwich:               You think there are such things? Exquisitely beautiful-

Jad Abumrad:                      I would like to think that there are.

Latif Nasser:                         No, so I think if my facts are right, that the world snowflake expert is actually in Pasadena, California.

Latif Nasser:                         Alright, check check check check check.

Robert Krulwich:               In sunny Southern California?

Latif Nasser:                         Yeah.

Latif Nasser:                         I'm wearing a t-shirt. I have sunscreen lathered, and I am going to talk to the world authority on snow.

Latif Nasser:                         How are you?

Latif Nasser:                         His name is Ken Liebrech. He's a professor of physics at Cal Tech. He is in a way like the modern day Wilson Bentley, because he takes a ton of snowflake pictures.

Ken Liebrech:                      I've taken about 10,000 now.

Latif Nasser:                         And he actually makes snowflakes.

Ken Liebrech:                      Oh yeah.

Latif Nasser:                         Artificially.

Latif Nasser:                         Okay wow, so this is a giant tank. This is nitrogen here?

Ken Liebrech:                      Never mind that.

Latif Nasser:                         And to get to your question about the ideal snowflake, a few things. So number one, there are a bajillion different kinds-

Ken Liebrech:                      Dendritic, crystal stellar dendrites, needles and columns, and hollow columns, and [inaudible] plates.

Latif Nasser:                         So that's one thing. The second thing is that, snowflakes are never static. They're never one thing. So every single moment as it falls to the Earth, it's either growing or shrinking. Depending on the trajectory through the different pockets of weather as it's moving down. So there is no real platonic ideal form of a snowflake because it's so in flux.

Ken Liebrech:                      There's no such thing as a perfect snowflake.

Latif Nasser:                         But, that doesn't stop Ken Liebrech from looking.

Ken Liebrech:                      You know, I tried up in Tahoe, and Japan, and Vermont, Michigan.

Latif Nasser:                         He travels all over the world, looking for Bentley's perfect flakes.

Ken Liebrech:                      Alaska, into Alaska. But my favorite spot is Northern Ontario. A little town called Cochrane.

Latif Nasser:                         Population 5,487.

Latif Nasser:                         So where do you go in Cochrane? Just anywhere? They're just falling all over the place?

Ken Liebrech:                      Mostly it's the parking lot of my hotel.

Latif Nasser:                         He says there's a lot of waiting involved.

Ken Liebrech:                      It only really snows about once a week.

Latif Nasser:                         Even then things have to be Goldilocks perfect.

Ken Liebrech:                      If the clouds are too high, then they evaporate a little on the way down. They don't look very pretty.

Latif Nasser:                         Or-

Ken Liebrech:                      If the clouds are too light or too heavy-

Latif Nasser:                         That's bad too.

Ken Liebrech:                      And a lot of times the temperature is wrong.

Latif Nasser:                         If you want those Christmas card supermodel snowflakes, you need to have exactly-

Ken Liebrech:                      Minus 15, that's 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Latif Nasser:                         You'd have high humidity, not so much wind, so that they'll putter down slowly and have more time to grow.

Ken Liebrech:                      But every once in a while, when conditions are right, you go outside all hopeful and [inaudible] and it's like, "Ah crap, there's nothing but garbage out here." So you go back inside and read some more email, and you come back half an hour later. Nope, still lousy. Another half hour later, nope, still lousy. You do this for hours. And all of a sudden they'll get really good. And then I'm just out there frantically trying to collect as many as I can.

Ken Liebrech:                      One of the things I like to think about is, here I am with my little piece of cardboard in the middle of a continent where it's snowing all the time. And so, I am catching some incredibly small number of these things for a brief period, and getting some really cool pictures. And so you kind of wonder, what else is out there? What are you missing? I mean, imagine just all the beautiful little works of art that are just falling down totally unnoticed, and then they just disappear. I mean, stuff that is far prettier than pictures I have. Because they're out there. You know they're out there, statistically they're out there. And so, there's just an awful lot of really gorgeous things that are, like you're saying, they're just totally ephemeral and you'll never see them. And they're falling constantly. So you sort of want to just stop the world and go look at them.

Jad Abumrad:                      Thanks to Latif Nasser and to Ken Liebrech who wrote the book, The Secret Life of a Snowflake.

Matt:                                         This is Matt Neely Dawson from Ashville, North Carolina, and Bliss is this sound. That's the sound of my seven month old daughter reacting to my puppy dog licking her feet.

Igor:                                            Hi, my name is Igor and I'm calling from [inaudible] Serbia. Bliss is Indiana Jones, all three parts.

Steve:                                        Hi Radiolab, this is Steve Strogatz. Bliss is the taste of hot pastrami at Katz's Deli in the Lower East Side of New York City. We live four or five hours away from New York and don't get there very often, so I spend a lot of time in between visits thinking about that first taste of the hot pastrami. So for me, that's bliss. I get to think about some kind of almost unattainable perfection. And it is attainable, I just show up and there it is.

Mary Roach:                         This is Mary Roach and I'm in Oakland, California, and I have a list of bliss. My bliss list. Number one, laughing uncontrollably. Number two, zero gravity. Number four, the first ten seconds in a hot, hot bath. Number nine, a raw oyster, very fresh, but no larger than an infant's ear.

Adrian:                                     This is Adrian Stein from New Brunswick, New Jersey. Radiolab 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

Jad Abumrad:                      Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:               I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:                      This is Radiolab.

Robert Krulwich:               And we're talking about bliss.

Jad Abumrad:                      And so far, I've got to say we're not doing so great. I mean, we had a fleeting moment, a dream that crumbled, snowflakes that evaporate in your hand.

Robert Krulwich:               But, in the next story, we're going to shoot for bliss that lasts.

Mike Young:                          Hello, this is Mike Young. Speak up, Andy.

Jad Abumrad:                      Comes to us from our producer Andy Mills.

Andy Mills:                             Can you hear me?

Mike Young:                          I can hear you.

Jad Abumrad:                      Alright, so set this up. Who is this guy?

Andy Mills:                             His name is Mike Young. I called him up because of something that happened to him a little over 50 years ago.

Mike Young:                          Let's see, this was 1962.

Andy Mills:                             It's something that he still thinks about all these years later.

Mike Young:                          I was in my early 20s, 22, something like that, 21.

Andy Mills:                             He was a graduate at a theological school in Boston. And one day he received a very different kind of religious education.

Jad Abumrad:                      A very different kind.

Andy Mills:                             Uh huh.

Mike Young:                          The event occurred on Good Friday.

Andy Mills:                             And it happened at-

Mike Young:                          The Boston University Marsh Chapel.

Andy Mills:                             He was sitting not up in the main chapel, but down in the little basement chapel. And he was sitting with about 19 of his fellow classmates.

Mike Young:                          The meditation service was being piped down to us from the chapel above.

Andy Mills:                             They have speakers in the front of this little chapel in the basement.

Mike Young:                          We had organ music, and an excellent choir, and-

Andy Mills:                             The voice of the preacher.

Howard Thurman:            [inaudible] thought.

Andy Mills:                             Was this kind of famous guy named Howard Thurman.

Mike Young:                          And we relaxed.

Howard Thurman:            [inaudible] what our hearts have felt.

Mike Young:                          And interesting ideas began going off in my head.

Howard Thurman:            Walk beside us in the way that we take.

Mike Young:                          Sometimes it was hard to pay attention to what was going on in the room.

Howard Thurman:            The things that resist and divide.

Mike Young:                          And we slid gently right into the psilocybin experience.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wait, he said psilocybin?

Andy Mills:                             Yes. As in, magic mushrooms.

Jad Abumrad:                      Shrooms? Wait, you're going to have to explain that one.

Andy Mills:                             This was actually something called the Marsh Chapel Experiment.

Jad Abumrad:                      The Marsh Chapel Experiment.

Andy Mills:                             And it was run by this guy.

Walter Pahnke:                  And let me ...

Andy Mills:                             His name was Walter Pahnke.

Walter Pahnke:                  Very briefly summarize the-

Andy Mills:                             And he was a graduate student at Harvard at this time. And he was studying religious experience.

Walter Pahnke:                  Peak experience. Now this has also been called the cosmic experience, the transcendental experience, or the mystical experience.

Jad Abumrad:                      What exactly was he looking at?

Andy Mills:                             You know, Christians, Muslims, Jews, mystics. What kind of things do they all have in common? So he did a bunch of research and interviews, and he came up with a basic catalog of the ingredients in a religious experience. And one day he's at Harvard and he bumps into-

Timothy Leary:                    Turn on, tune in, and drop out.

Andy Mills:                             That guy. Timothy Leary. He was actually a teacher at Harvard at the time, and he was famously giving psychedelic drugs to undergrads.

Timothy Leary:                    We're teaching people how to use their head. The point is, in order to us your head, you have to go out of your mind.

Andy Mills:                             And when Pahnke got a chance to talk to these students who had tripped, he noticed pretty quick that they used really similar language to the people he'd been studying. And he started to wonder, if you put people into the right situation, and you give them this drug, could you induce, actually induce a religious experience? So on that day in 1962, Pahnke put 20 theological school students into this church basement during this Good Friday service. 10 of them got a placebo, and then 10 of them got a heft dose of psilocybin.

Mike Young:                          Things in the room morphing.

Andy Mills:                             Which brings us back to Mike Young.

Mike Young:                          You would move your head and there'd be an afterimage from the lights. At one point the visual effect was especially powerful.

Andy Mills:                             And he had this one moment that has just stuck with him ever since.

Mike Young:                          I was in the middle of a technicolor sea. There were bars of color, and I was floating through them, and they were floating through me. And it was just glorious. And the bars of color then resolved into a wheel. I was at the center, and there was a different color going out from me in every possible direction. At first this was quite nice. And then I realized that I had to swim out one of those color bars. I had to. And each of those different color bars would be a whole different life experience. And I could choose any one of those life experience color bars that I wanted. But I had to choose one. And I couldn't choose one. It was very painful. It felt like my insides were being ripped out of me. And I died. And at that moment that I died, I heard Howard Thurman say ...

Howard Thurman:            I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for death.

Mike Young:                          And I stopped dying.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wow. That's ... wow. What are we supposed to make of that?

Andy Mills:                             Right. It is strange.

Robert Krulwich:               Yes.

Andy Mills:                             And in fact, this is actually right around the time that there's this huge cultural backlash against this drug. Into 1962, you've got Harvard making the decision that these experiments are not going to be done at their university anymore. '63, they fire Timothy Leary.

Speaker 40:                           Timothy Leary.

Andy Mills:                             He's out of there. 1970, Congress outlaws psychedelics. 1971-

Speaker 41:                           Nearly every country in the world including the United States-

Andy Mills:                             Bans them from research.

Speaker 41:                           Is a signatory to an international law banning the use, sale, cultivation, and possession of dangerous drugs that have no useful place in medicine.

Jad Abumrad:                      I mean, one some level I get that, because what could you learn from a bunch of people tripping? Scientifically.

Andy Mills:                             I mean, I actually think that there is something that we can learn from this.

Robert Krulwich:               What?

Andy Mills:                             Well, if you look at Mike Young, on the day that he walked into that chapel-

Mike Young:                          I was still a theological school student.

Andy Mills:                             He was experiencing-

Mike Young:                          Doubts, without any real confidence that ministry was something I was going to stay in.

Andy Mills:                             But after this experiment at the chapel, he went home to his wife-

Mike Young:                          And when I walked in, my wife was very much aware that something rather unusual had occurred to this guy she was married to.

Andy Mills:                             Did she just, you carry yourself differently?

Mike Young:                          She's never been that explicit about it. She just said that she knew that I had had some kind of a major experience.

Andy Mills:                             At first he kind of just wrote the whole thing off. But as time passed, he couldn't stop thinking about the death, and the rebirth experience. And to make a long story short, if you fast forward-

Mike Young:                          I'm a Unitarian Universalist minister as partly a result of that drug experience.

Mike Young:                          I want to share with you this morning a little exegesis of the New Testament.

Jad Abumrad:                      That's him?

Andy Mills:                             Yeah.

Mike Young:                          A story of the Good Samaritan.

Andy Mills:                             He has been preaching for 45 years. Here's the thing that I think is really strange. All of the people who took the drug that day, those ten who got the psilocybin and not the placebo, all but one became ministers.

Jad Abumrad:                      Really? So 9 out of 10 went into the ministry?

Andy Mills:                             9 out of 10.

Jad Abumrad:                      What about the others?

Andy Mills:                             The placebo group?

Jad Abumrad:                      Yeah.

Andy Mills:                             None.

Jad Abumrad:                      None.

Andy Mills:                             According to Mike, absolutely none.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wow, that is interesting.

Andy Mills:                             That was the first thing that I was like, "Wow, that's crazy." But at the same time, it's a really small sample set. Who knows why anyone becomes a minister? I'm sure it wasn't just the drugs. Maybe they didn't even play that big of a role for everyone else. But this did make me more curious. What exactly is happening to people when they take this drug?

Jad Abumrad:                      Yeah.

Andy Mills:                             And I was surprised to find out that right now, there are actually a few laboratories who are starting to experiment with these drugs again.

Roland Griffith:                   We thought, well why not?

Andy Mills:                             This is Roland.

Roland Griffith:                   Roland Griffiths, psychopharmacologist. I study the effects of drugs on behavior.

Andy Mills:                             He's at Johns Hopkins.

Roland Griffith:                   I've been at Hopkins for 40 years now.

Andy Mills:                             He's really well known for studying nicotine and Ritalin. But he tells me that back in 2000, he was reading about the old psilocybin studies from the 60s, and this is right around the time when-

Roland Griffith:                   The drug enforcement administration and the FDA-

Andy Mills:                             Were starting to loosen their rules on experimenting with psychedelics. So he applies, and he gets approval.

Roland Griffith:                   A study of that sort had not been approved for 30 years. And I can tell you that I've never had a protocol that was as rigorously and carefully reviewed and scrutinized from every angle.

Andy Mills:                             Since no one had studied this drug for three decades, he started with some really basic questions. How does this affect behavior? After people have taken this drug, do they feel confused, or afraid? Is it habit-forming? And how he did this test was, he has this lab room at Johns Hopkins that he's made really nice and cozy.

Roland Griffith:                   It's an aesthetic living room-like environment. There's a couch and stereo system.

Andy Mills:                             And then one at a time, volunteers are brought in, given a hefty dose of psilocybin, blindfolded-

Roland Griffith:                   And then they're asked to lay down and direct their attention inward. We were bringing people in two months after sessions and asking them, "So what was the session like?" And they filled out some questionnaires. And the thing that I really wasn't prepared for, was how salient and important these experiences were said to be on follow-up. They were saying, "Well it was really important." And I would say, "Well how important?" And they would say, "Well, it was the most important experience of my life." And I'd go, "What?" And they would say, "Yeah, it's like when my daughter was born. It changed my world forever. I recently lost my father, and I'll never forget that. It's kind of like that." And that's totally improbably. So we didn't have any metric that could even assess that.

Andy Mills:                             And what made things even weirder for Roland is that when he gave these volunteers a questionnaire-

Roland Griffith:                   About 75% of people were saying it's in the top five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their life.

Andy Mills:                             A vast majority, we're talking about it's a spiritual experience. So Roland, he went back to look at Pahnke's studies from the 1960s about the basic ingredients that make up a religious experience.

Walter Pahnke:                  Let me list the characteristics, a very summary list. First, the characteristics of awe and wonder.

Andy Mills:                             Everyone would report that they felt they were in the presence of something great and enormous.

Walter Pahnke:                  The second characteristic is transcendence of time and space.

Andy Mills:                             People describe time slowing down, or space getting weird.

Walter Pahnke:                  The third characteristic has to do with mood. A very deeply felt positive mood.

Andy Mills:                             Fourth, and I'm skipping over a few here.

Walter Pahnke:                  Unity. This is a sense of cosmic oneness.

Andy Mills:                             This feeling of intense connection to everything around you.

Walter Pahnke:                  A part of everything that is, the whole universe and even every blade of grass and grain of sand, and so forth. These are words that people use in describing [inaudible 01:04:50].

Andy Mills:                             So based on this one guy's research, and keep in mind, a lot of people have different opinions about this. Roland believes that you can actually take this little drug, and for a majority of people, you can induce a religious experience.

Robert Krulwich:               I don't ... As soon as you call it that, then I'm starting to think, hmmm, don't know.

Andy Mills:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Krulwich:               This is a real ... I mean I don't know to you guys, but for someone who takes this very seriously, to say that you can pop a pill and then in some shortcut fashion suddenly get this experience that hitherto had been very rare and had been assigned the values of grace. To say that is to say an enormous thing.

Jad Abumrad:                      It sounds like you're not ... I'm guessing how you're taking it Robert is to say that it devalues the thing.

Robert Krulwich:               Yeah, it devalues it.

Andy Mills:                             Kind of does the opposite for me.

Robert Krulwich:               Really?

Andy Mills:                             When I hear the stories from all the people in these studies, it reminds me, I've had these very meaningful experiences that I didn't think would last.

Robert Krulwich:               On a pill did you have them, or?

Andy Mills:                             No, not a pill. No drugs.

Robert Krulwich:               So what happened?

Jad Abumrad:                      Yeah, what are you talking about?

Andy Mills:                             Well, it goes back to when I was a Christian. I used to be an Evangelical Christian. And when I was about 15, I was at a church camp. And me and some of my best friends were all gathered around a campfire. It was hot, and the stars were all bright and shiny. I remember they were playing this song that I really liked. You know that feeling that you get when you and a crowd of people are all singing really loud some song that you all really love?

Robert Krulwich:               Yeah, sure.

Andy Mills:                             And as we're all singing this song, I remember my friend who wasn't raised in the faith like me, leaning over to me, and saying that he wanted to accept Jesus and be a Christian. And he asked, "What am I supposed to do?" And I remember that being ... great is not even the word for it. In this one moment, I got caught up in something that just felt so enormous. It's hard for me to explain how it felt. It's hard to describe how I felt like we were all one. There was something powerful that was both over us, also inside of us. And so much has changed since then, that sometimes I look back and I think, "Did that happen? Did I hallucinate like some dude on drugs?" Because that friend who reached over to me, he's dead now. That faith that I was a part of, I left it. All I have is this weird feeling that I can remember, that's good.

Jad Abumrad:                      And even though you're not a Christian anymore, you still have that feeling?

Andy Mills:                             Oh yeah.

Jad Abumrad:                      But what is it about the idea that that feeling, that campfire feeling could be triggered by a pill? And that maybe that's what was happening to those folks in Roland's study? What is it about that idea that helps you?

Andy Mills:                             For me, I see something concrete. I see something that's harder to write off.

Jad Abumrad:                      How so?

Andy Mills:                             Well, if I can go back into reporter mode, I will introduce you to one more guy who I think is going to help you understand what I'm talking about.

Charlie Passat:                   Hello.

Andy Mills:                             This is Charlie.

Charlie Passat:                   Charlie Passat.

Andy Mills:                             He's a long-time smoker.

Charlie Passat:                   I started at 17.

Andy Mills:                             Smoked for 40 years.

Charlie Passat:                   A pack a day. Breakfast, coffee, talking on the phone.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wait, why are we talking about smoking?

Andy Mills:                             Well, Roland's new study he's doing right now, his pilot program that he's just started a few years ago is trying to see if there's something in the transformation that you have in the psilocybin experience that can help smokers quit smoking.

Robert Krulwich:               What?

Andy Mills:                             Stick with me.

Charlie Passat:                   They gave me a pill, a blue capsule. And-

Andy Mills:                             He closed his eyes, and like Mike, he said he had a hallucination that changed him.

Charlie Passat:                   The thing that I found so amazing, the one thing that was more amazing than anything else, was when I was on this mountain.

Jad Abumrad:                      This is a mountain in his head?

Andy Mills:                             Yes.

Charlie Passat:                   When I had traveled to the very top, I was looking out over this greatness.

Andy Mills:                             This vista of everything. He says, he was just this microscopic thing. He was so small, and it was so big.

Charlie Passat:                   But my experience at this one place was so exalted.

Andy Mills:                             Because he was struck by this feeling, this deep feeling that-

Charlie Passat:                   We were the same thing. We were the same.

Andy Mills:                             This right here is another hallmark of these experiences. You're somehow confronted with this radical shift in scale. And things that formally felt too big for you to deal with, they suddenly look different.

Roland Griffith:                   We had one person involved in our cigarette smoking study who had had a dose of psilocybin. And in the course of that session, the idea of smoking came up to him, and he said, you know, it was like a fly had landed on his arm. And he just took his finger and he flicked it off. And he said he was done with it.

Jad Abumrad:                      Done done?

Andy Mills:                             Mm-hmm (affirmative). And that's exactly how it was for Charlie.

Charlie Passat:                   The morning afterwards-

Andy Mills:                             He says he just didn't want cigarettes anymore.

Charlie Passat:                   I just didn't. They just weren't an issue anymore.

Jad Abumrad:                      And how long as he been off of it?

Andy Mills:                             Three years.

Jad Abumrad:                      Wow.

Andy Mills:                             This is just a tiny pilot program. I don't think that we should make too much out of it yet, but the insight I feel is, because Charlie has this real experience, it's not a question of something invisible like faith. It's a tangible reality. For me it's the closest thing I can come to having some kind of real evidence that what happened to me was real.

Jad Abumrad:                      With the campfire?

Andy Mills:                             Right.

Robert Krulwich:               To me, the mystery is, you've done this occasional thing with an artificial stimulus, had an extraordinary but temperature feeling, and then mysteriously it isn't temporary. It just goes on and on.

Jad Abumrad:                      Yeah, do we have any idea why it persists?

Andy Mills:                             Well, Roland has a very educated hunch. I asked him about this, and he's looking right now at getting in there and doing research with some new FMRI machines. But his hunch is that the psilocybin drug experience, it somehow rewires the brain.

Roland Griffith:                   We're talking about rewiring personality at a fundamental machine programming level.

Andy Mills:                             He calls this experience a re-arranging experience. Maybe one day, science will figure out what's happening in the brain of a person that's experiencing something like this. But one of the things about this that troubles me as a reporter and even personally is that, going back to Walter Pahnke, remember his list of ingredients from earlier? His final characteristic-

Walter Pahnke:                  And the final characteristic that I'd like to mention here-

Andy Mills:                             Final ingredient was-

Walter Pahnke:                  The characteristic of alleged ineffability, which means that the people who have such experience claim that it can't be described in words. That it's non-verbal, basically indescribable.

Andy Mills:                             And that's one of the main things that I'm going to take away from all of this. Talking to Roland, and Mike, Charlie, is just how hard it is to talk about the thing that I've just spent the last 20 minutes trying to talk about.

Charlie Passat:                   I understood something. Some ... life. Some eternal truth. These words really don't match the thing. I was at the top, I was feeling divine source of ... self-awareness. That's ... I'm sorry, it's a trick of words, I guess. It's ... got larger.

Jad Abumrad:                      Thanks to producer Andy Mills. Thanks to you guys for listening.

Speaker 44:                           Start of message.

Speaker 45:                           Hi, this is Reverend Mike Young. And here are the credits.

Speaker 46:                           Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.

Speaker 47:                           Our staff includes Ellen Horne, Sauren Wheeler, Pat Walters, [inaudible] Howard.

Speaker 48:                           [inaudible] Alyssa O'Donnell, Dylan Keith, Andy Mills, and [inaudible] and Shaun Cole.

Speaker 47:                           With help from Chris [inaudible] and Kelly [inaudible 01:14:10].

Speaker 48:                           Special thanks to [inaudible]

Speaker 47:                           Special thanks to the [inaudible] for more info visit [inaudible 01:14:22].com. Hope you got it.

Speaker 44:                           End of message.