Mar 25, 2021


Scientists took about 300 years to lay out the Periodic Table into neat rows and columns. In one hour, we’re going to mess it all up.  This episode, we enlist journalists, poets, musicians, and even a physicist to help us tell stories of matter that matters. You’ll never look at that chart the same way again.

Special thanks to Emotive Fruition for organizing poetry performances and to the mighty Sylvan Esso for composing 'Jaime's Song', both inspired by this episode.

Thanks also to Sam Kean, Chris Howk, Brian Fields and to Paul Dresher and Ned Rothenberg for the use of their song "Untold Story:The Edge of Sleep"

Check out Jaime Lowe's book Mental: Lithium, Love and Losing My Mind

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Intro: Oh, wait, you're ... okay ... all right ... okay ... all right. You are listening to Radiolab ... Radiolab ... from WNYC ... C?

Speaker 4: Helium. Revolt. There is no shelium. Yet he is pronoun and element, top right king, the most noble gas. But if there was shelium ... how fine, wise, light she might be.

Jad Abumrad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab, and today ...

Robert Krulwich: Elements. Yeah.

Speaker 7: I carried your oxygen and you walked beside me through the lobby, commenting on the décor when you needed to stop for breath. Your hand ran light and steady, by the ocean of breath, twice I remember. I carried your oxygen. It was heavy, a bleak alloy. Steel.

Jad Abumrad: This hour is a collaboration with poets like the ones you heard, and will hear more of.

Robert Krulwich: Musicians ...

Jad Abumrad: Reporters ...

Robert Krulwich: And of course the periodic table of elements.

Jad Abumrad: Speaking of which, our producer Soren Wheeler who's sodium spark brain conceived of this entire show, he will lead us off.

Soren Wheeler: So this one starts with a story I heard from Jamie Lowe. She's a writer in Brooklyn, and at the heart of this story is this particular 24 hour period in Jamie's life that she is uneasy about. Let's just set it up for one second, so what are we about to watch?

Jamie Lowe: I'm not actually exactly sure where it starts, but we're about to watch, I think, the night before Valentine's day 2001.

Soren Wheeler: I eventually convinced her to sit down with producer Lutef Nassar and sort of just walk us through the tape.

Lutef Nassar: Go for it, you're in control there with the space bar.

Jamie Lowe: All right.

Speaker 11: Yeah I'm on?

Speaker 12: You're on.

Speaker 11: Hi.

Speaker 12: Hey.

Jamie Lowe: These are the kids in the corner.

Speaker 12: Hey you should marry Jamie. Are you going to marry Jamie, Mike?

Soren Wheeler: The video starts, it's night time, Jamie and her friend Mike, he's the one filming. They're outside his apartment in Brooklyn and the camera is pointed at a bunch of high school students who were just walking by.

Speaker 13: So what's the deal? Tell me. So you want to be an actress, right?

Speaker 11: Yeah.

Speaker 12: Want to tell him what you need to tell him.

Speaker 11: I love acting and the experience.

Speaker 13: Hell yeah, really?

Speaker 11: Yeah.

Speaker 13: That's so cool.

Speaker 12: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Speaker 11: Yeah. Romeo, oh Romeo-

Speaker 12: It is my enemy, thou art thyself though not a Montague.

Speaker 11: It is my enemy, thou art thyself though not a Montague. What's Montague?

Speaker 12: What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man.

Speaker 11: It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man.

Jamie Lowe: Okay, and somehow I'm like egging them on to recite it.

Speaker 11: Retain that dear perfection which he owes with that, that title, and Romeo doth thy name, and for thy name which is no part of thee take all myself.

Jamie Lowe: This is the part that you can kind of see I'm screaming.

Speaker 11: You ladies are all right.

Speaker 12: So wait-

Speaker 13: I notice you were saying-

Soren Wheeler: The camera eventually turns to Jamie. She's sitting on the stoop, a huge curly hair, wide eyes, and she starts to sing the kids a song.

Jamie Lowe: It goes (singing).

I was pretty convinced that I was like a great singer and rapper.

Speaker 13: She likes the sound of her own voice.

Speaker 12: Yeah you're good.

Soren Wheeler: Wait, do you sing a lot in-

Jamie Lowe: No, I never.

Soren Wheeler: No, never.

Jamie Lowe: I am not a singer.

Wow I just started singing, I don't know what was it like three weeks ago?

Speaker 13: Was that the one around the corner?

Mike Ryan: It was fun to watch people react to her. She made people really happy wherever she went.

Jamie Lowe: Do you guys live here?

Mike Ryan: We went to flea markets and she would talk to people, and she would pull this spark out of them. It just felt like NY loved her.

Soren Wheeler: That's Mike Ryan, guy holding the camera. He'd only met Jamie just three weeks earlier, not long after he moved to NY, and they pretty much instantly became friends.

Mike Ryan: She was so positive. As I recall, she's talking to some little kids on a stoop, but then that next four or five hours was pretty defining.

Jamie Lowe: I don't know if I can remember it though.

Lutef Nassar: Okay cut to ...

Jamie Lowe: Mike's apartment, I think.

Lutef Nassar: You're just walking around.

Jamie Lowe: In a bra and open dress, sparkly red bra and plastic bag?

Lutef Nassar: Plastic bag on the-

Jamie Lowe: On the stomach, belly dancing. You might have to shield your eyes Lutef.

Okay, here we go.

Soren Wheeler: Fast forward about four hours.

Jamie Lowe: That's Mike, he's sleeping.

Oh boy.

Mike Ryan: I'm too wasted to go.

Jamie Lowe: Good morning, it's Valentine's day 2001.

Mike Ryan: Good morning.

Jamie Lowe: That's kumquats and avocados, the kumquats were picked with my grandpa from their kumquat tree about three or four days ago.

That's true.

There's three breakfast bars.

Lutef Nassar: What is all that stuff on the cutting board?

Jamie Lowe: They're cut up power bars.

A bow from the present I gave you, that's hiding in a cup of wine that we're going to drink for our Valentine's.

And a cup of wine, of course, at 7:40 in the morning.

Mike Ryan: So do you need a nap or anything at noon? Or do you just keep pumping?

Jamie Lowe: If I'm tired I'll sleep. Oh heres a dollar.

Oh, okay. Poor Mike.

Mike Ryan: So Jamie.

Jamie Lowe: Yeah?

Mike Ryan: What's going to happen today?

Jamie Lowe: Today I'm going to contact MTV to debate Gore, Bush, Nader, or Iraq-

Mike Ryan: And Fidel Castro.

Jamie Lowe: Yeah, him too. He's an amazing man.

Mike Ryan: Debate Fidel though, seriously.

Jamie Lowe: Okay.

Mike Ryan: It has to be about-

Jamie Lowe: It can be about anything.

Mike Ryan: Right.

Jamie Lowe: I don't think that was ... Do you want to taste this one?

Mike Ryan: Yeah.

Jamie Lowe: Peanut butter and chocolate.

Lutef Nassar: Were you meaning that literally? That you were going to go on MTV and debate Gore V Bush, and then-

Jamie Lowe: I was. That is exactly what I had in mind for the day.

Mike Ryan: I thought it was make believe. It seemed harmless. It just didn't occur to me that what I was seeing was somebody who had deviated substantially from who they wanted to be.

Jamie Lowe: I have to change the world, Jesus Christ Mike.

Soren Wheeler: Eventually Mike got up, had to go to work. Jamie took off for a while, and then later that day she showed up at his office. At first everything seemed sort of fine-

Mike Ryan: But within 20 minutes she said, "Hey, tell you what, can we go to the roof really fast?"


That immediately got me uncomfortable.

Jamie Lowe: Can't tell you yet.

So okay, over pants, floral wrap around skirt. We are now going to the roof.

Are you ready to be blown off your feet?

Mike Ryan: No I'm not.

Jamie Lowe: Okay.

You can hear he's done, like the day has been insane. This is at the end of that day. Snowy, 7th Avenue rooftop.

Mike Ryan: What is this?

Jamie Lowe: Anything I have.

Mike Ryan: What is that?

Jamie Lowe: It's a piece yarn.

Lutef Nassar: What is it?

Jamie Lowe: A piece of yarn.

Mr. Mike Patrick Ryan, will you come tonight to a party?

Mike Ryan: I can't, I have to work.

Jamie Lowe: Okay. It's at 5:20, on top of the world at the world trade center where I want to marry you.


If you want to.

Mike Ryan: Tonight?

Jamie Lowe: Yeah. It's all set up.

Mike Ryan: Jamie-

Jamie Lowe: That's the end. At that point he was like done. We're done.

Lutef Nassar: Wow.

Jamie Lowe: Yeah. I mean, yeah.

Mike Ryan: That's when it hit me that there was no way that any of this reflects what she would actually want. I don't know if delusional is a kind word here, and if it's not I apologize, but if she is delusional enough to think that we should get married is she delusional enough to think she can fly? Will she be distraught when I say, "No." Would she jump? So I lowered the camera, and I said, "I'm afraid of heights and I want to go downstairs immediately." I felt, for the first time, just fear. I believe I called her mother first, Leanne, and I just said, "My name is Mike. I'm a friend of Jamie's and I think she may be going through something, and I don't know what I'm dealing with. I'm in over my head here."

Leanne Lantos: When Mike called I just got on a red eye that night.

Soren Wheeler: That's Leanne Lantos, Jamie's mom.

Leanne Lantos: It was my job to get her to go back to her therapist so that we could get some medication in her.

Soren Wheeler: For Leanne this episode was not entirely a surprise. It had happened once before when Jamie was in high school.

Leanne Lantos: At that time, she was not sleeping at night-

Mark D'Antonio: Spinning around the room, talking non-stop about how he had to save Central America from disaster.

Soren Wheeler: During that episode Jamie ended up at a place called the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA, and she ended up being treated by this guy, Dr. Mark D'Antonio. He's a psychiatrist.

Mark D'Antonio: She was in a very acute, manic psychotic state.

Jamie Lowe: I remember being sort of tackled by nurses to actually take my meds because I refused to.

Leanne Lantos: We didn't know if we would ever see our Jamie again.

Soren Wheeler: Yeah.

Leanne Lantos: That was the scariest part.

Jamie Lowe: Everyone around me, I think, was really, really worried that I wouldn't come back.

Soren Wheeler: But she did come back, and it's what brought her back that is actually the reason I got so interested in this story. So, shortly after she was admitted Dr. D'Antonio told Jamie's parents-

Mark D'Antonio: We know what this is and we know how to treat it.

Leanne Lantos: He said she's a classic case of Bipolar.

Mark D'Antonio: There was no question.

Leanne Lantos: The drug of choice is Lithium.

Mark D'Antonio: Is Lithium.

Soren Wheeler: Which is not even a drug, but just this salt.

Leanne Lantos: He explained to us that she would need to-

Mark D'Antonio: Take three tablets of Lithium. Three tablets of this salt.

Soren Wheeler: And it could bring her back.

Mark D'Antonio: When it works, it's just remarkable.

Soren Wheeler: Do you have memories of like what it was like to come back like that? What you were thinking, or what it felt like?

Jamie Lowe: It's really hard to describe. It's a little bit of a slow realization of like, "Oh that was a weird thing that I did a week ago." Like, "Why did I do that?"

Leanne Lantos: The first time she was actually lucid, and coming back to herself again.

Soren Wheeler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Leanne Lantos: The first words out of her mouth were "Mom, it's not me," and I just ... That just killed me.

Soren Wheeler: Within a few weeks it was like the incident never happened.

Jamie Lowe: It's so bizarre. I mean, I felt like here was this thing that's a salt that I get to just take three of a day and that was it.

Mark D'Antonio: Totally normal, no side effects, no issues.

Soren Wheeler: She went off to college.

Jamie Lowe: And just like flourished, and it was great.

Soren Wheeler: Things were good for a long time.

Mark D'Antonio: Then after about six years she said, "I've been on this pill for six years. I've had no problems. I'd like to go off it."

Jamie Lowe: Why don't we try to go off gradually.

Mark D'Antonio: Then about a month after she was totally off Lithium she was whack.

Soren Wheeler: In Mike's apartment, up all night.

Mike Ryan: You were so tired just a minute ago.

Jamie Lowe: That's because you told me I had to leave, but now I'm still here aren't I?

Mike Ryan: Totally manic episode all over again.

Jamie Lowe: Because I am whatever you say I am.

Mike Ryan: Oh God. That's it.

Soren Wheeler: One of the things that kind of makes Lithium, that effect hat Lithium has, so spooky ... and you hear this from a lot of people that have taken Lithium to treat the Bipolar, is that Lithium itself is so simple.

Ben Lilly: Lithium is an element, right? It's a single atom.

Soren Wheeler: This is Ben Lilly. He's a writer, runs the Story Collider podcast. He's had some personal experience with psychiatric drugs, and he's written about Lithium.

Ben Lilly: That, to me, was fascinating. That a single atom can change what we think of who we are. I mean it's not even ... Not just an atom, it's atom number three. It's the third element in the table.

Soren Wheeler: Hmm.

Ben Lilly: It's one of the simplest atoms, right? So it's just three protons, four neutrons, three electrons.

Soren Wheeler: That's a pretty simple bit of matter. I mean, it doesn't get much ...

Ben Lilly: It really is. This had never struck me when I was on Lexapro or Wellbutrin, which is the other one they put me on. If you look at them, they look like what you expect a pharmaceutical drug to look like. There's a ring of carbon atoms, and some other things stuck on a bit, and they look like these big complex molecules. You're like, "Oh yeah, I'm complex. My brain is complex. It takes this complicated thing to change it." Then you're confronted with just this atom. It was found by accident that it works. It's not complicated to make. It's just a salt that you distill out, and yet it has this profound effect.

The other thing I know about Lithium that is profoundly weird is that you're not just saying "My mind, my personality, is being changed by an atom." It's being changed by an atom that was created directly in the big bang itself. So you have this atom formed in the big bang, goes through whatever it does, winding path to come onto the Earth. Gets dug up, turned into a pill, given to someone, and that changes their affect in the world. That, to me, is just ... It's this profound reminder that the forces that shape everything in the universe are the same as the forces that are shaping who we are and what we do, and what our identity is.

Soren Wheeler: It's possible that these forces shape not just the people with Bipolar Disorder, but all of us. I ended up talking to a clinical psychiatrist, Anna Felz, who told me about these studies.

Anna Felz: Huge epidemiologic studies. The biggest one, I think, was in Japan. One was in Austria, one was in Greece. A famous one in Texas, in which they looked at communities that had different levels of Lithium.

Soren Wheeler: Lithium in the water supply, and we're talking about tiny, tiny amounts.

Anna Felz: Micrograms, those are a thousandth of the amount in a milligram.

Soren Wheeler: If you think of like a pill of Lithium, well we're talking about amounts like 10 thousandths of a pill. Like that's the amount that we're dealing with here. These studies found, by and large, in towns that had a tiny bit more Lithium in the water suicide rates were lower. In some cases as much as 30%.

Robert Krulwich: Wow.

Anna Felz: I should say the Texas study, which is astonishing, also shows that the towns that have the highest Lithium level have lower felonies, thefts, rapes. And these are reputable published studies.

Soren Wheeler: Now, these studies are only showing us correlations, but they're does at least seem to be some kind of connection and just-

Jad Abumrad: I mean, if there is a connection what the hell is it doing?

Robert Krulwich: Do they know why it works in the brain? Like do they know what it does?

Soren Wheeler: Well, essentially-

Robert Krulwich: No.

Soren Wheeler: ... it's still kind of a mystery. But heres Mark D'Antonio's theory. He says we know that Bipolar Disorder involves a defect in a certain part of the brain.

Mark D'Antonio: It's an area of the brain that has to do with controlling mood. So believe it or not there's neurons in the brain that keep your mood even.

Soren Wheeler: These neurons they do their job by sort of passing electricity back and forth, and that electricity is carried by sodium ions. So the whole system is pretty much based on sodium.

Mark D'Antonio: Lithium is very similar to sodium.

Soren Wheeler: So if you have Lithium in the brain the neurons will use that to communicate. They'll send Lithium ions back and forth. Here's what's interesting, Lithium works just like sodium.

Mark D'Antonio: But not as well. Lithium is similar enough in properties that it can be an imposter, but whatever it does it just doesn't work as well.

Soren Wheeler: That's the key, he says.

Mark D'Antonio: So then this area of the brain, the defective area of the brain that makes these moods flip on and off so intensely doesn't work as well, and that stops the Bipolar episode.

Jad Abumrad: That's so interesting that maybe its sluggishness it good.

Mark D'Antonio: Yep, yep.

Soren Wheeler: Although he says that same trick where it can be a sort of sodium imposter, but slower, that can also cause issues.

Mark D'Antonio: Slight tremors in your hand. You can have nausea. They can affect the kidneys. The balance of sodium your body is regulated partially through the kidney's and somehow Lithium replacing it can be toxic to the kidneys.

Soren Wheeler: Which actually brings us back to Jamie.

Jamie Lowe: Yeah, so before I went-

Soren Wheeler: After that episode in New York with Mike and the video she went back on Lithium, and again she was fine. In fact, for the last 16 years she's been completely normal. Then a couple months ago-

Jamie Lowe: I went to a new primary physician, mostly because I'm lazy and I didn't want to go to the upper west side to see my other doctor, and this doctor basically took my blood pressure and was like, "You're going to die. You need to go to the ER."

Soren Wheeler: Turns out her kidneys were failing, and so she suddenly had to make this choice.

Jamie Lowe: That I could sort of just stay on Lithium, and go to dialysis and get a transplant, or that I had to switch and that now would be when I would switch. That I had enough function that I could.

Soren Wheeler: You are in the middle of that decision now, you feel like? Or do you feel like it's decided?

Jamie Lowe: I think I'm going to switch. I think I made that decision. It's just that every psychiatrist in New York leaves for August, because I don't know why, but they all disappear for August. All of August, and mine said "You should probably wait to switch until I come back." I feel like I have a good group of people around me. I have a solid job. It's terrifying to court mania, but I also feel like there are a lot of effective drugs, and that one of them is going to work. It won't be as cool as Lithium though. Depakote sounds like oh God. It's like wah wah, you're on Depakote.

Soren Wheeler: As she was in the middle of that decision Jamie did one last thing. She actually took a trip to Bolivia, which is where much of the world's Lithium comes from. There's this place you can go and literally see these massive salt flats which are just covered in mounds of Lithium.

Jamie Lowe: I just wanted to see them. I wanted to experience them. I wanted to be near them, so I went. It just looks like a hallucination. It looks like somebody could not have conceived of this landscape. You have red lakes, and you have flocks of flamingos and this like long salty expanse that goes on forever. It's just huge, it's enormous.

Soren Wheeler: Do you go up to a pile and put your hand on it or-

Jamie Lowe: Yeah, you can. You stand on it, and you jump off the pile. I was making kind of Lithium angels. It was awesome. I know I have to go off of it, but I really am ... I mean, gratitude is like not even the word. I feel like this thing allows me to be me. It doesn't define me, but it allows for functionality, and that sounds kind of wonky but it's like every day I get to work and it's because of that. Everything, you know, I'm grateful to it for its service. I feel like its done a lot for me. It worked so hard to get to me too, from the big bang to now.

Jad Abumrad: Producer Soren Wheeler. Now, Soren is made of elements, though not of Lithium, which we should say only some of which we was made in the big bang. Some of it was also made in a super nova, and we'll have one of those coming up. Special thanks to Ben Lilly, Ann Harrington, Kay Redfield-Jameson, Steve Lowe and of course Jamie Lowe. Jamie is working on a book about her experiences with Bipolar. It will be called Grand Illusions.

This is a song from the band Sylvan Esso. We played them the last story in progress, and they wrote a song about it.

That was Sylvan Esso with Jamie's song.

Speaker 19: You want to talk bang? Hydrogen was there at zero hundred hours in the coke colored velodrome of dark matter. Gasses checking gasses at infinitum, chartreuse flair. Then a deafening birth. Ions of cosmos cartwheeling, pink, red, yellow, green, purple, blue, black and the sphere of night. First I was a star, then a stain of water, then a kindergartner.

Robert Krulwich: These poems, by the way, come from two events that we held in New York City. We went to Emotive Fruition, which is a wonderful organization run by Thomas Dooley, who is himself a poet. He summoned poets from all around the metropolitan area, and for two nights they came to the Bell House in Brooklyn, Botanic Lab in Manhattan-

Jad Abumrad: And so far we have hear Hydrogen, by Sarah Salas, read by Randy Farogawa. Helium by Christina Kantana, read by Jonice Avitprat, and I carried your oxygen a poem by David McCloughlin read by Sam Bresslin-Wright.

Robert Krulwich: So next up-

Derrick Muller: I'm going to give you three claps. I don't know if you need that, but just in case you need to-

Robert Krulwich: Okay.

Derrick Muller: ...sync it there you go.

Robert Krulwich: He's like a TV guy.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, so a while back we ended up talking to a guy named Derrick Muller who makes a YouTube channel-

Derrick Muller: Called Varitasium.

Jad Abumrad: Super popular channel about science and engineering, and we called him because he's making a documentary about Uranium. We got to talking about what happens when you take two protons and neutrons and you just whack! Put them together.

Derrick Muller: Yeah, it's absolutely nuts.

Jad Abumrad: That led to this really interesting conversation about the beginning of all elements.

Derrick Muller: I mean, I feel like a little bit of back story is worth saying here. One really important thing to know is that combining nuclei gives you energy.

Jad Abumrad: He says when you slam two particles together they get squished, and in the squishing they lose a little mass.

Derrick Muller: That mass gets emitted as energy. This is E=MC squared.

Robert Krulwich: Oh.

Derrick Muller: That's what's happening in the sun right now. So the sun is taking protons, individual protons, and smashing them together, combining them, and that gives you energy. The energy of the sun. Their lost mass is the sunlight that we bask in. It was mass.

Jad Abumrad: I have never thought of light as former mass.

Derrick Muller: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: That's what a star does, he says. It smashes little atoms like hydrogen together to make bigger atoms like helium and then bigger atoms like carbon, and then even bigger atoms like oxygen, and every little collision it's doing generates some energy which keeps the star going.

Derrick Muller: Stars live by this process of sticking nuclei together, going from smaller nuclei making bigger nuclei. The heavier the star, the more this smashing and bashing they can do in their core, and the bigger and bigger nuclei they can form.

Jad Abumrad: But there are limits. Six billion years ago there was a star, giant star. Way bigger than our sun, and it was just doing its thing taking atoms-

Derrick Muller: And smashing them together, combining them.

Jad Abumrad: You know, just taking hydrogen atoms and making helium. Taking helium atoms and-

Derrick Muller: Making carbon, making oxygen.

Jad Abumrad: And as it smashing all of these nuclei together it's releasing energy and getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

Derrick Muller: But then there comes a point where sticking nuclei together no longer gives you energy.

Jad Abumrad: And that point is element number 26.

Derrick Muller: Iron. Once you've formed iron, if your a star, that's the end of life as you know it.

Jad Abumrad: Because iron is incredibly stable.

Derrick Muller: One of the most stable nuclei in the universe.

Jad Abumrad: It's protons are tightly packed in there and so you can't force any more energy out of them.

Derrick Muller: Which means you have a core which is no longer going to give you energy.

Robert Krulwich: You can't cook up anything higher than the iron.

Derrick Muller: That's it.

Jad Abumrad: But what happens to the star? Does it just become a big punk?

Derrick Muller: What happens is everything starts to collapse.

Jad Abumrad: Gravity takes over.

Derrick Muller: That's the thing, a star maintains it's size by the fact that there's all this energy going out.

Jad Abumrad: So this dead iron core starts pulling everything back in.

Derrick Muller: And at this point, all of that stuff which is headed inwards ...

Jad Abumrad: Aluminum, oxygen, carbon, magnesium, silicon-

Derrick Muller: Starts rubbing against each other, and it starts getting real hot and real dense. All of the sudden you get the super nova.

Robert Krulwich: That was the most pathetic super nova explosion I've ever heard.

Derrick Muller: It wasn't ... Can you put in a sound effect to make it sound-

Robert Krulwich: Yes, we have to put in-

Derrick Muller: Better?

Robert Krulwich: That was-

Jad Abumrad: That is actually our specialty.

So, even though we know there are no sounds in space, for the purposes of your enjoyment we present to you the super nova.

Derrick Muller: So here's the beauty of it. Here's the beauty of the super nova, in the ridiculous excesses of energy that are there in the super nova, right? In that ridiculously huge explosion, the biggest in the universe, there is so much energy there that actually what happens is you form these nuclei which would not form under any other conditions.

Jad Abumrad: You know, iron hits carbon to form germanium. Silicon hits oxygen to form titanium. You start to get all of these bigger elements.

Derrick Muller: Including like gold, including the gold in your wedding ring. They need that extreme ridiculous excess of energy to form.

Jad Abumrad: And then ... it's done.

Derrick Muller: And what are you left with? You're left with a giant field of debris. There's carbon, there's oxygen, there's iron, there's silicon, there's hydrogen, there's helium, and it starts to clump together due to gravity. The center of that which clumps together is our sun, is mostly hydrogen and helium, and it's like 99% of all the mass in our solar system. Then the other chunks, other bits and pieces, start to clump together as well. They have a bit more angular momentum so they're spinning around the outside, and those are your planetesimals. Your early planets, and-

Jad Abumrad: And that is eventually how you get the Earth, and all of us. This is where we come ... So you're saying this is the birth of everything past iron?

Derrick Muller: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Jad Abumrad: I feel like an idiot but I think I get it for the very first time. So post super nova, like in the milliseconds post super nova, you have lots ... You have the whole periodic table hurling through space.

Derrick Muller: Yeah, you do. You really do.

Robert Krulwich: You can find Derrick Muller most days on his YouTube channel, Veritasium. His documentary Uranium: Twisting the Dragon's Tail will soon appear on PBS.

Jad Abumrad: It has already, in fact, appeared.

Robert Krulwich: It has even already appeared on PBS, and for some crazy reason it passed me by.

Jad Abumrad: Coming up a story that will make you wish the cold war wasn't over.

Robert Krulwich: Not me. Not me. I'm happy it's over.

Hester Fuller: This is Hester Fuller calling from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at

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David Remnick: Robert Karo has won the Pulitzer Prize twice for biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Now Karo is turning his attention to another fascinating American, Robert Karo. I'm David Remnick, and join me May 7th for a live taping of the New Yorker Radio Hour at McCarter theater in Princeton, New Jersey. I'll talk with Karo about working, his latest book which covers his process of writing these monumental biographies. Tickets are available at

Jad Abumrad: Next up, producer Molly Webster and carbon.

Molly Webster: All right.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, you just want to launch in.

Molly Webster: Yeah. So, science and-

Robert Krulwich: Yay.

Molly Webster: Yeah. This is my new thing with my sisters I just always go hashtag science because they get really sick of me trying to teach the kids science lessons. Hashtag science it. Okay, so one of the biggest mysteries in biology is how old am I?

Jad Abumrad: That doesn't seem like a mystery.

Molly Webster: Well, I mean obviously I'm Molly Webster who's 32 years old, who has lived through 32 birthdays, I guess.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Molly Webster: But this is a question of like ... We know that some cells in our body regenerate, and so it's like how old are those cells? Like how old is my heart right now?

Robert Krulwich: Hmm.

Molly Webster: Or how old's my eyeball, or how old is my nose?

Jad Abumrad: A spleen.

Molly Webster: The northwest corner of my kidney.

Robert Krulwich: Is this like, if I'm three years old and now I'm 33 years old do the cells in the 33 year old are they the same as ... Are any of them the same as the one when I was three? Is that the question?

Molly Webster: Yeah, that's one of the questions. Are any of them the same, if they're not the same then how often do they change?

Robert Krulwich: Hmm.

Molly Webster: Because if you understand that then you might be able to solve injuries, help people heal faster, or fix diseases where cells are messed up like psoriasis or anemia, or ALS, or something like that. Also, it just seems so cool to be able to be like oh that chunk of my heart is from 1997-

Robert Krulwich: yes.

Jad Abumrad: That's super cool.

Molly Webster: ... or like that other chunk of my heart is from 1983.

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: Oh I would love to know that. At the party of Robert I would want to meet the original Robert cell. So if there's anybody whose been here since 1947 I'd love to just say hello, and if you just joined me in 2015 well that's nice.

Molly Webster: Right.

Robert Krulwich: I mean, I-

Molly Webster: It would be super cool.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Molly Webster: So, one of the questions they've had for a long time is "Is there a way that we can try to date cells?" So they're like, well we can't really send anything into the body because that can be toxic, so the answer for a long time had been "No." Then 2002-ish this little idea pops up, and it's something called the bomb pulse.

Robert Krulwich: B-O-M-B? Bomb?

Molly Webster: B-O-M-B, and then pulse P-U-L-S-E.

Jad Abumrad: Bomb pulse.

Molly Webster: Yeah. To explain-

Speaker 25: Five, four, three, two, one. There it goes.

Molly Webster: In the 1940s and '50s, we all know this, we-

Speaker 25: Useless color, there is the ground wave. It is over folks.

Molly Webster: We tested a lot of atomic bombs.

Speaker 25: We're all out. There's a huge fireball.

Molly Webster: The first test was in 1945, Trinity test, New Mexico. A few weeks later ...

Speaker 26: The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Molly Webster: Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

Speaker 26: We shall continue to use it-

Molly Webster: So as World War II comes to an end, the rest of the world just tries to catch up the the U.S.

Speaker 26: There reds are to explode a huge bomb of 50 megatons.

Molly Webster: The Russians, then after the Russians-

Speaker 26: Britain fires it's first H-Bomb.

Molly Webster: ... the British, the French, the whole cold war basically just continues to unspool. All in all, over 400 atomic tests went off above ground between 1945 and 1963.

Speaker 26: Just imagine, if only one atom bomb were to be dropped on an American city thousands of persons would be killed instantly.

Jad Abumrad: That was just a sucky time.

Molly Webster: Well, hashtag science, there's one good thing. Potentially one good thing popped out, and that is an answer to the question of how old are we.

Jad Abumrad: That somehow came out of the bomb tests?

Molly Webster: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: How?

Molly Webster: Let me explain.

Jad Abumrad: Do it.

Molly Webster: So with every one of those detonations, when an atomic bomb goes off it would shoot a whole bunch of stuff up into the atmosphere. All of these like radioactive elements, like cesium and plutonium and all of these things, but also that explosion shoots up a bunch of neutrons and the neutron will crash into nitrogen that's floating in our atmosphere and create C14. Which is a very special type of carbon. It has 2 extra particles in it. Now, as all of that bad radio active stuff starts falling out of the atmosphere back to the ground, C14 doesn't fall out of the sky. It just sort of floats there. What happened is over time the wind currents carried C14 from these test sites and just spread it all over the planet, and this C14, which is just totally like normal carbon, not harmful, it just bonds with oxygen and it gets sucked up into plants. Then animals eat the plants, and then we eat the animals, or we eat the plants, and then suddenly the C14 is in us.

Jad Abumrad: Hmm.

Molly Webster: So we all have a little bit of the atomic age in us.

Jad Abumrad: Wait, but I wasn't even born in 1963, so why would it be in me?

Molly Webster: That is the cool thing because it hangs out in the air for a long time. So it's actually still up there.

Jad Abumrad: Hmm.

Robert Krulwich: But why does this have anything to do with dating anything?

Molly Webster: Yeah, so I'm about to tell you that.

Hey, you there?

Bruce Bookhart: Hi, yes I am.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah, yeah.

Molly Webster: Perfect.

Bruce Bookhart: I'm Bruce Bookhart. I'm a senior scientist at Laurence Livermore National Lab.

Jonas Freisen: Jonas[inaudible 00:41:26] professor of stem cell research at the Carlinski Institute in Stockholm.

Molly Webster: So in the early 2000s Jonas is staring down this question of how do I date cells, and at a certain point he gets together with Bruce because he comes up with this idea which is just "Oh, maybe we just look up."

Bruce Bookhart: So, there are some groups in Europe, there's one in particular that's been measuring the atmosphere every two weeks since the late 1950s.

Molly Webster: Oh my gosh.

Bruce Bookhart: It's an incredible data record.

Molly Webster: Bruce says what these scientists have done is they've taken all of these measurements and they put them into one chart, so you can see the amount of C14 in the atmosphere over time.

Bruce Bookhart: So we have this basically a calendar. I could send you a picture so you can see what the graph looks like.

Molly Webster: Yeah, I'd love to see a picture.

What you see on that graph is this, according to Jonas.

Jonas Freisen: Up to 1955 it's a pretty flat line, with very little variation, but then suddenly in 1955-

Molly Webster: With all the bomb tests.

Jonas Freisen: ... there's a very sharp increase.

Bruce Bookhart: A lot of carbon 14, very dramatic increase. That's why they called it a pulse.

Molly Webster: And that increase goes all the way up to 1963 when-

Speaker 26: The Kremlin, fortress of communist doctrine, is the setting of an historic event.

Molly Webster: When the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union agree to stop exploding atomic bombs above ground.

Speaker 26: The signing of an atom test ban.

Jonas Freisen: After that, there's a gradual decline.

Molly Webster: They're just measuring it all the way down so they can just say, "Oh here's where it was in 1980, here's where it was in 1990, 2000, 2010." This right here is the coolest part, because the amount of C14 in the atmosphere at any given moment is directly reflected in our cells, right? So if there's like that much C14 in the atmosphere in September 1972 that that is going to be mirrored in cells that were born in September 1972. So it is like this totally perfect birthday calendar.

Bruce Bookhart: We can see approximately how long. Have they been there for 10 years, or 20 years, or 30 years?

Molly Webster: It's like once this idea got out, scientists all over the world were like-

Bruce Bookhart: Oh yeah. It didn't take long to see that this might be something cool to do.

Molly Webster: So just to give you a quick sense of some of the work that came out of this, I spoke to one scientist.

Kirsty S.: I'm Kirsty Spalding, and I work at the Carlinski Institute in Stockholm.

Molly Webster: She was working with Jonas, and they figured out how to use C14 in brains.

Kirsty S.: I mean, first of all the basic question was can adult humans make new neurons.

Molly Webster: She says that for like 100 years-

Kirsty S.: The dogma had always been that the neurons we're born with are the ones we die with.

Molly Webster: The problem was she had no way to investigate this. She couldn't use it in humans, even if they were dead humans, until she figured out a technique where she could extract brain cells and see how much C14 was in there.

Kirsty S.: Yeah, exactly.

Molly Webster: It turns out the next best thing to human, is a horse.

Kirsty S.: Because horses can live for quite some years.

Molly Webster: Decades.

Kirsty S.: So every second Tuesday I would go out to the local abituar-

Molly Webster: The local slaughter house.

Kirsty S.: ... an hour away. I mean, I was a vegetarian surrounded by carcasses and they would bring the horses head out to me, and I had to figure out how to get the brain out of it's head.

Molly Webster: Wait, what?

Kirsty S.: It was-

Molly Webster: So you actually had to like cut open the skull and get to the brain yourself?

Kirsty S.: I mean the second time I went I took my boyfriend with me. I was like, "I can't do this, physically." They actually had a circular saw and I actually discovered that the skull, the bone, across the top, the nose of the horses is quite thin. So that was a much easier access point. This is really gross discussion.

Molly Webster: Did you ever see research going that way?

Kirsty S.: No, absolutely not. Not at all.

Molly Webster: But what she saw when she finally moved her research from horse heads to humans was turnover.

Kirsty S.: We found quite robust levels of new neurons in adulthood.

Molly Webster: Once Jonas's team showed that this worked scientists got excited, and people started to date things, and not just cells. So, can I tell you the ages?

Robert Krulwich: Sure.

Molly Webster: Okay. The baseline ages we knew before C14 was that skin was like 14 days old.

Robert Krulwich: 14, oh that's only 14 days old?

Molly Webster: 14 days. Yeah, so like two weeks.

Robert Krulwich: Wow.

Molly Webster: The surface level of your gut, like the skin on your gut I guess, was five days.

Robert Krulwich: Five days.

Molly Webster: So that's even shorter than skin. That's like the surface of the-

Robert Krulwich: Wow, so-

Molly Webster: ... intestine.

Robert Krulwich: Oh the surface of the intestine.

Molly Webster: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: The lining.

Molly Webster: The lining that's like-

Robert Krulwich: Well that's because that's everything scraping all that food going down. So no, that doesn't surprise me.

Molly Webster: Then with C14 the deeper muscle part of the intestine the average is 15.1 years.

Robert Krulwich: 15.1 years, oh big difference between skin-

Molly Webster: Wait, 15.9, 15.9 years old.

Robert Krulwich: Okay, 15.9 years, hmm.

Molly Webster: Fat cells was another one that they did, 10 years old.

Robert Krulwich: 10 years old.

Molly Webster: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: Interesting.

Jad Abumrad: Why would a fat cell need to last that long?

Molly Webster: 10 years?

Jad Abumrad: Jesus.

Robert Krulwich: Because it's perverse.

Molly Webster: Just to torture you.

Robert Krulwich: Because fat cells ... Yes.

Jad Abumrad: Why would it last that long?

Robert Krulwich: Because fat cells are mean cells.

Jad Abumrad: But honestly do they have any idea?

Molly Webster: They don't know.

Jad Abumrad: Huh. Do they know what would be one of the oldest part of us?

Molly Webster: Your cortex, which is like the part of your brain that does abstract thinking, or your voluntary movements. That's as old as you are.

Robert Krulwich: Really. Huh.

Molly Webster: So if you want to know one of the oldest parts of you, the oldest cell is probably in your-

Robert Krulwich: Super thinking part of your brain.

Molly Webster: ... it'll be like your cortical neuron.

Robert Krulwich: Well that fits if I think of myself as the stories I tell myself. Like when you get Alzheimer's and you lose your stories and you lose your mind, people say.

Molly Webster: But the interesting thing though is the hippocampus is where you keep all of your memories, and they saw that your hippocampus does make a bunch of new neurons.

Jonas Freisen: Yeah, so in the hippocampus-

Molly Webster: That's Jonas Freisen again.

Jonas Freisen: ... an adult gets approximately 1,400 new hippocampal neurons per day.

Robert Krulwich: Really?

Molly Webster: Yeah, and then each of those neurons will live like 20, maybe 30, years.

Jad Abumrad: So does that mean that the part of Robert's brain where he keeps the stories he tells himself that part is being made new every 20 or 30 years?

Molly Webster: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: That's a strange thing that your oldest stories could be stored in baby little neurons.

Robert Krulwich: That is weird.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah.

Robert Krulwich: I remember going to Kioto, and it's like the oldest most beautiful temple in Kioto it has exactly the form that it had hundreds of years ago, but when you walk in the walls and the floors and the roofing they've been restored. They've been restored actually over and over again, because in Japan what they call old is the form, it's the shape of the building. You go to Athens though, and you go up to the Acropolis and you stand in the Parthenon, there you're standing in the very temple that Pericles stood in. It's the same place exactly. Same materials, so like in Greece they believe that the original stuff is what you preserve, and in Japan they don't. They think it's just the form. I was thinking of this thing you're doing is sort of a little bit like that. I was thinking I'm much more Greek than I am Japanese, because I want to know what my original cells are, where they are in me.

Molly Webster: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: My question is actually more basic, it's like why does part of me get to reborn and the other parts of me don't? Like why not all of me get to be reborn?

Molly Webster: Because if all of you is being reborn you would just crumple into dust.

Jad Abumrad: No but I mean why not? Why does only certain parts get to regenerate?

Molly Webster: It's interesting because they don't know. They said the next ... They said basically this question of how old is a cell, they said no one was asking. Everyone wondered this, but no one was asking this question because they never had the tools to ask it. So now they're just starting to ask those questions, but there's a problem. This bomb pulse that we've been dependent on in the last decade to start answering all of these questions is going away.

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Molly Webster: Every day a little more of that C14 gets sucked out of the air.

Robert Krulwich: So how much time do we have left before-

Molly Webster: 15 years. It's gone by 2030, give or take.

Kirsty S.: Yeah, so we need to get questions answered now because we really are working against the clock for many things we want to look at.

Molly Webster: I talked to this Alzheimer's researcher who was trying to figure out the chronology of the disease, like when certain pathologies form in the brain. He was kind of just like "I just wish I had a little more time." When I think about this ... I was thinking about this on the subway this morning. I was looking around and I was thinking, you know I'm on the L train it's a bunch of 30 year old kids or something. They're all reading or something, drinking their expensive lattes. I'm like "These people are so far away from thinking about the cold war, or atomic bombs, or anything like that, and they're all walking around with this secret signal from the atomic period inside of them." And then that little signal is binging out knowledge about their shoulder, and their elbow, and their liver, and the west side of the liver, and the east side of the liver, different parts of their heart, and the fact that it's now going away ... How someone born in 2042 is just going to be really boring, and there's going to be no ... They're not going to have any insights into who they are.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah, but-

Molly Webster: It sort of makes me inclined to very peacefully want to explode another atomic bomb.

Robert Krulwich: What? No. No, no and no.

Molly Webster: Why?

Robert Krulwich: You forget all of the poisons that it ... That is not a benign event that's sort of an experimental picker upper. That is extra stuff in the air-

Molly Webster: Don't kill my dream Robert.

Robert Krulwich: I have to kill your dream because it's a dumb, dumb dream.

Jad Abumrad: Producer Molly Webster.

Robert Krulwich: And special thanks to Henrick Druid and Mark Lovell.

Speaker 30: Happy Valentine's day magnesium. I go blind watching you burn, magnesium. Iodine is cute the way it sublimates, and yes, I'll put Lithium in water to watch it scoot about but my heart belongs to you magnesium. The hot, white flame, the abandoned, the slowness of you becoming your own fuse. Mercury is beautiful, yes, but it's you magnesium. The way you burn for me, the way you leave nothing of yourself behind.

Speaker 31: We are flying over Greenland. Your elbow is too close to mine on the airplane armrest. Down there they are excavating uranium from beneath the Arctic ice and selling indiscriminately. Though from here I can only see the white of ice sheets and glacier topped mountains. This is an island of fishing rigs, and colorful houses. Cod and catfish stew, and tomato cream. Once, I thought every isotope in me is radio active. I make the people who love me sick. This is a teenage way of thinking, but you have uncovered a glowing spark in the pristine frozen places within me.

Jad Abumrad: That was Uranium from poet Emily Hocoenidae read by Jonice Abitprat, and before that Happy Valentine's Day Magnesium by Jason Schneiderman performed by Sam Bresslin-Wright.

Robert Krulwich: Everybody has a middle name in this thing.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah they do.

Robert Krulwich: Say Bresslin-Wright, yeah, okay.

Jad Abumrad: Coming up-

Robert Krulwich: We're going to get into an elevator, push the button, and go down. I mean all the way down. I'm Robert Lewis Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: Jad Nicholas Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: We'll continue in a moment.

Pilar Castro: Hi, this is Pilar Castro from Bogota, Colombia. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at Muchos Gracias Radiolab.

Jad Abumrad: Hey I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab, and today ... fuck it, elements, we're doing it. Okay, so we have this periodic table of elements, which is a list of the simplest bits of matter that we know of. So theoretically everything that we see, everything that we are is made of these stuff that is in that table. That's sort of the beauty of the periodic table is that it describes everything right?

Robert Krulwich: Well, about 45 years ago a scientist named Vera Ruben was studying the motion of the galaxies. You know how the galaxies just spin in that beautiful way around like in spirals. Her calculations did not explain why the galaxies were holding together, and she figured no there's got to be some stuff that I can't see around the galaxies that explain why they move the way they do. What is that stuff? Whatever it is it's not interacting with the matter of our world hardly at all, otherwise we'd see it.

Rick Gatesgull: It's indeed why we call it dark.

Dark matter is the dominant matter component in the universe.

Robert Krulwich: That's experimental physicist Rick Gatesgull.

Rick Gatesgull: The stuff you and I are made of, these conventional protons, is the flotsam and jetsam of the matter world. It's cast on a sea of dark matter. We're talking about, in terms of the total composition of the universe, you and I, the stuff we're made of, is four and a half percent.

Robert Krulwich: The other 95.5% is this stuff. The dark matter, the dark energy, which theoretically is all around us.

Rick Gatesgull: If you clap your hands you will have a dark matter particle in your hand. The problem, or the challenge, is that it is so weakly interacting that it will pass straight through you, and in fact will pass straight through the Earth dead and will have very little probability of interacting.

Jad Abumrad: But what if you could get one of these little bastards to interact? Then, I mean forget the periodic table. Then you would meet the most fundamental element of them all.

Speaker 34: City of Leed, historic home town.

Jad Abumrad: We're going to tell you about an experiment now. This bizarre experiment, and we sent our producers Andy Mills, and Domiano Marquetti to check it out.

Speaker 35: Right here. It should say.

Speaker 34: You think it's this close?

Jad Abumrad: It is happening in South Dakota, in the black hills in this little town called Leed.

Speaker 34: Man, I have not seen this many trees in so long.

Jad Abumrad: Incredibly beautiful, picturesque little town, but right near the town as you crest over this hill ...

Speaker 34: That's it?

Speaker 35: Oh that's a deep cut.

Jad Abumrad: You'll see this mountain that looks like it's just been torn open.

Speaker 35: No.

Speaker 34: We pulled over and we walked over to the edge of this thing, and it was like peering down into an ancient volcano.

Speaker 35: That's not what I thought it would look like.

Speaker 34: It's just carved out that hill.

Speaker 35: In this town, there is one of the deepest man made holes on the planet.

Jad Abumrad: That's where the experiment is, and it's there because way down deep in that hole ...

Kent Myers: It's demonstrably the quietest place in the universe.

Speaker 34: That is Kent Myers, he's a writer.

Speaker 35: The quietest thing will make sense in a second.

Speaker 34: He wrote an article in Harper's Magazine recently that is all about this experiment, and this hole.

Kent Myers: I was interested in the idea of these fraunteers, that the-

Robert Krulwich: Fraunteer? Where are you from? Fraunteer.

Kent Myers: I'm from Minnesota.

Robert Krulwich: Oh there you go.

Kent Myers: People tell me I sound like I'm from the movie Fargo.

Robert Krulwich: Well let me join them.

Speaker 34: Anyway Kent says that this story ... It starts off way back in the old west.

Speaker 37: A hearty frontier, wild, rugged.

Speaker 35: 1874 General Custard and crew.

Kent Myers: Custard comes out looking for this gold, and finds it.

Speaker 37: Gold on the mountains, in the rivers, and in the dark depths far below the service of the Earth.

Kent Myers: Then just like that 10,000 people within two years are just invading, illegally invading the black hills which were the great Sioux reservation.

Speaker 35: By 1901 the minors blast 1,500 feet down, by 1927 3,500 feet down.

Speaker 34: By 1975 ...

Kent Myers: It's 8,000 feet deep.

Speaker 35: To put that into perspective-

Rick Gatesgull: That's a sort of mile and a half.

Robert Krulwich: Did you say a mile and a half, is that-

Rick Gatesgull: Yeah, they literally moved mountains.

Kent Myers: Oh, it's immense.

Speaker 35: Imagine six empire state buildings going straight down.

Robert Krulwich: And gold is that valuable that you could put that kind of effort and energy, and-

Kent Myers: Isn't that astonishing?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Kent Myers: But what happened is that eventually the price of gold dropped to the point where the size of mine-

Speaker 35: Was just unsustainable.

Kent Myers: But when you're mining 8.000 feet down for every foot you go down your price increases, your costs increase. You've got to haul it further, you've go to air condition the mine.

Speaker 35: You've got to pump out the ground water.

Kent Myers: You have to run electrical lines down there.

Speaker 35: So, in 2001 after 126 years of being in operation the mine shut down.

Speaker 34: Did it create a ghost town? I mean, did ... How did it-

Kent Myers: Well this was the fear. This was the fear, that we were just going to have the whole economy of this part of the country was going to fall apart, but as this was happening ...

Rick Gatesgull: We saw an opportunity there.

Kent Myers: These physicists realized that this was a golden opportunity.

Robert Krulwich: Wait, wait, wait. Before we ... I don't under ... How do experimental physicists, because they love holes? I mean is that just some sort of tradition?

Kent Myers: Yeah, they're just in love with holes. They're just like dwarves.

Speaker 35: No, no, no. This is where we get to that idea of quiet. This experiment, it needs a kind of quiet that you cannot find on the surface of the Earth.

Rick Gatesgull: When you and I are sitting on the surface of the Earth we're not acutely aware of it but we are being hit by cosmic rays at a rate that, I think, really rather amazes people. If you simply hold your hand out three or four times a second a cosmic ray is going through your hand-

Kent Myers: Yeah.

Rick Gatesgull: ... and it's going right through it, and that's every second. So your body is literally bathed in thousands of these every second.

Kent Myers: We are just being bombarded with a din. Rick Gatesgull takes about it like being in the middle of a stadium during the Super Bowl.

Rick Gatesgull: This is as though everybody in this arena is clapping.

Speaker 35: Now just imagine that in the middle of all this chaos there is one person leaning over to their friend, and whispering a secret into their ear.

Kent Myers: Dark matter is like the whisper.

Rick Gatesgull: It'll be lost in the noise.

Kent Myers: We have to cut out all this noise in order to even come close to hearing it.

Rick Gatesgull: It turns out putting a mile of rock between you and the clappers is taking you a lot of the way there.

Speaker 34: Yeah that's a great sound.

So Rick took us into this mine through these massive iron doors, down these long, underground tunnels, into a room where we met this guy.

What's your name and who are you?

Mike Sunese: Mike Sunese, grew up in Leed, South Dakota. I'm the fourth generation that's been hanging around the homestake mine.

Speaker 34: Mike worked at the mine, so did his dad.

Mike Sunese: Both my grandfather's were homestake veterans.

Speaker 34: Most kids that Mike went to school with, and his dad went to school with, they worked at the mines.

Mike Sunese: My grandmother's father, on my dad's side, was also a miner.

Speaker 34: But now-

Speaker 35: Now he works in a room where he basically equips scientists with all their safety gear and stuff.

Mike Sunese: Got to have your belt on.

Speaker 34: He gave us these boots and a respirator.

Mike Sunese: You catch on fire you want to be able to breath right?

Speaker 35: That's what you want to hear in the morning.

Speaker 34: Yeah.

Eventually ...

Speaker 35: We climb into this old steel service elevator.

Kent Myers: A little further.

Mike Sunese: South cage of the 41.

Speaker 39: South cage, 41.

Mike Sunese: Lower south cage.

Speaker 34: And then we just start rocketing downward.

Light speed going down here.

Speaker 35: We're going so fast.

Rick Gatesgull: The speed of which we're moving is sort of equivalent to the speed of which an airplane often when it's descending.

Speaker 34: At 1,000 feet our ears pop.

Speaker 35: At 2,000 feet this sort of wet, muddy smell wafts up.

Speaker 34: And as we're dropping, all that noise is getting slowly filtered out.

Rick Gatesgull: We're able to, literally, use the rock to absorb these cosmic ray particles.

Speaker 35: After about 10 minutes the elevator stops.

Speaker 34: Whoa.

Speaker 40: Okay guys, watch your step here.

Speaker 35: Thank you guys.

Speaker 34: Thank you.

Speaker 35: We step out 4,850 feet down.

Speaker 34: This is a cave man.

It looks like a cave. It's got a dome like ceiling and walls that are just carved rock.

Jad Abumrad: So what is that sound? It's water.

Speaker 34: That's the sound of rain coming through a whole lot of rock. To be clear, it's not raining outside. It's not raining up in the world. It's just ground water.

Speaker 35: According to Kent, it's costing over a million dollars a year.

Kent Myers: Just to run the pump's to drain that water. So that gives you some-

Jad Abumrad: A million dollars a year?

Rick Gatesgull: yeah.

Speaker 35: But Rick says down here-

Speaker 34: This is the least amount of radiation that we will ever experience in our lives.

Rick Gatesgull: It is quite dramatic. It's about three million less cosmic rays. So when you hold your hand out, less than one every few months.

Speaker 35: January ...

Rick Gatesgull: Coming through your hand now.

Speaker 35: March ...

Rick Gatesgull: That isn't the end of the story.

Speaker 41: So we're going to step inside here. The very first step, we actually have a nice-

Speaker 35: It turns out that even if you cut out all of the rays coming from the outside there's still rays coming off of us.

Rick Gatesgull: You and I, we carry a certain amount of uranium and forium, these radioactive elements in us.

Robin Barlin: Okay, so what we're going to do is you're going to take your coveralls off.

Speaker 35: A woman named Robin Barlin made us change clothes.

Robin Barlin: So can you take that machine out?

Speaker 34: Yeah.

Robin Barlin: Okay.

Speaker 34: Scrubbed out stuff.

Robin Barlin: Oh, the microphone. I'm going to wipe this. Is that okay?

Speaker 34: Yeah. We can leave that ...

Speaker 35: And then Rick takes us into the lab where the experiment happens. It's this all white room with this huge tank in the middle.

Rick Gatesgull: The tank contains 70,000 gallons of high purity water, and we're directly inside it, and we can without fear of disrupting the experiment one can ...

Speaker 35: The experiment actually happens inside this tank.

Rick Gatesgull: One can bang the outside of the steel container.

Speaker 35: The whole idea is that this water will actually filter out even more radiation.

Rick Gatesgull: That makes it very quiet.

Speaker 34: But still, it's not quiet enough, and so inside that tank of water they put an even smaller tank of the element xenon.

Rick Gatesgull: About a third of a ton of liquid xenon.

Robert Krulwich: Where do we find xenon on the periodic table? What is this?

Rick Gatesgull: Xenon is number 54.

Robert Krulwich: 54.

Rick Gatesgull: It's over on the right hand side so that we have this imperially named set of elements we call the noble elements.

Robert Krulwich: You mean they're just too good for everybody else. They interact hardly at all.

Rick Gatesgull: That's right. You really struggle to make xenon interact with any other atoms.

Speaker 34: Which is just another way of saying that inside of this tank of xenon, which is inside of this tank of water, which is down in one of the biggest holes ever dug by man, it is really, really, really, really, really quiet.

Kent Myers: It's demonstrably the quietest place in the universe. I mean you can't ... You don't know that it is because there could be somewhere some quieter place, but as far as we know the center of this lux detector is the quietest place that we human beings know of.

Jad Abumrad: What's supposed to happen inside this super quiet xenon space?

Speaker 34: So the idea that you have here is that this cloud of xenon it's just waiting, and the thought is that when a dark matter particle that's like zooming around all the time, when that zooms through this xenon because it is so quite in there, because there is there is nothing else happening in there that dark matter particle even though it's not supposed to interact with anything from our world ... That particle, if it disturbs, if it nudges, in any way, any of the atoms of the xenon we'll notice it.

Speaker 35: And that tiny little disturbance, whenever it happens, Kent says you can think of that moment as the universe whispering to us.

Kent Myers: The whisper in human nature, the whisper is the point when we really want to speak intently to a single person we whisper. You know we whisper at funerals. We whisper in the presence of awesome things in nature. It's that reduced use of the voice that drops down, and drops down, to only goes into the ear it's intended for. It's Isiah's call, you know. He's lying on his mat and he hears the whisper because he knows that's for me alone. That call is for me alone, and that's that sense that this experiment gives to me is that here the universe has been shouting, and shouting, and shouting at us and we've gathered all this scientific knowledge out of the shout, out of the clapping, out of the cheers. Now where we're at in the 21st century is we're going down to what's it saying in the whisper, and those whispers go clear back to conception. They go clear back to birth. If we understand these whispers, we're very close to understanding gestation. I got carried away there, but-

Speaker 35: Oh we love it.

Kent Myers: ... but you really ... Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, and did you get to hear the whispers, see the disturbance, whatever it is? Did you meet the dark matter?

Speaker 34: Well, how can I give this to you lightly?

Rick Gatesgull: Okay, so this is confession time. I've been looking for dark matter for 27 years, and so far we have yet to see a convincing set of interactions that are associated with this dark matter and that's-

Jad Abumrad: Nothing at all?

Speaker 35: Yeah, nothing, but Rick hasn't given up hope. I mean, he sort of never gives up hope. I mean he says maybe we just need to build a bigger more sensitive detector.

Rick Gatesgull: That's, of course, exactly what we're doing.

Speaker 35: Instead of their current one, which has a third of a ton of xenon.

Rick Gatesgull: We are now designing and building a detector that's going to be 10 tons.

Speaker 35: He says even there, who knows.

Rick Gatesgull: The uncertainty we have to deal with is at least a factor of 10 million. 9,000 RPM, 10,000 and 20-

Speaker 35: The other pretty disappointing thing is that when you're in this room, like in the room with the lux detector that's supposed to be the quietest place in the universe, it's loud. It's crazy loud.

Speaker 34: There are sounds that I can only describe as robots dying. Like listen to this.

Jad Abumrad: Was there any moment that was quiet? Like quietly quiet, like deep quiet, feely quiet?

Speaker 35: well, sort of. After we went to the lux we had some time to kill, and they took us into the raw part of the mine where they used to mine for gold, and they just sort of walked us through these old tunnels.

Speaker 34: You scared?

Speaker 35: A little bit, yeah.

And you're walking through the black, and all you hear is like the sold of our feet crunching, the wind is being sucked down. It's kind of rushing through the tunnel so you hear ... It's the silence. It's not like the silence of like "Oh this street is really quiet outside of my bedroom." It's got like an energy to it. It's got like this ... It's kind of like when you're running and when you stop running and the absence of your exertion sort of fills you.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Speaker 35: It's like that moment where the absence of the noise sort of becomes palpable. That's, for me, the moment. Not standing in the laboratory. For me that moment was the moment where I'm like now I am standing at the center of the xenon. I don't think I ever, ever, have felt that before.

Jad Abumrad: Producer Domiano Marquetti and Andy Mills.

Robert Krulwich: We have had Domiano with us for almost a year and it's been a total pleasure. He is moving on but we wish him ... What do you like to wish him?

Jad Abumrad: I wish him quiet, but the good kind of quiet. You know, the kind that has energy.

Robert Krulwich: Oh that's nice.

Jad Abumrad: You know, the whomp, whomp, whomp kind. That kind.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Thank you Domiano. Huge thanks to Thomas Dooley. We had original music this hour from onethrix.never, Sylvan Esso, Kevin Drum, Ken Camdon, and VJ Ire.

Robert Krulwich: Thanks also to Matt Capist, and to Connie Walter, and to the folks at Sanford Underground Research Facility for letting us visit them and stay, and stay, and ask so many questions and finally leave.

Jad Abumrad: Yeah. Which is what we're about to do. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: Thanks for listening.

Speaker 43: Message two, new.

Jamie Lowe: This is Jamie Lowe.

Kent Myers: This is Kent Myers.

Derrick Muller: Hey, this is Derrick Muller calling to read the credits, and I just wanted to do this because I think all of these peoples names are awesome. I mean tell me you don't agree.

Kent Myers: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.

Derrick Muller: Our staff includes Brenna Farell, Ellen Horne, David Gabel ...

Jamie Lowe: Dylan Kieffe ...

Derrick Muller: Matt Kioti ...

Jamie Lowe: Andy Mills ...

Kent Myers: Latef Nassar ...

Jamie Lowe: Kelsey Pageant.

Derrick Muller: Aryan Wak.

Jamie Lowe: Molly Webster.

Kent Myers: Soren Wheeler and Jamie York.

Derrick Muller: Who are these people it sounds like a crime fighting team. You know, when you've got the Kelsey Pageant, and the Soren Wheeler.

Jamie Lowe: With help from Simon Adler, Kathy Tiou, Molly McBride-Jacobson, and Alexander Alinyung.

Kent Myers: Our fact checkers are Eva Dasher, and Michelle Harris.

Derrick Muller: I mean, tell me those aren't cool names. Eva Dasher? I just love these names. Anyway, thank you so much for having me on the show, and I don't know if you guys have time for it but if you haven't checked out Veratasium you might just want to go check that out, the element of truth. All right, bye.

Speaker 43: End of message.