Feb 21, 2019


Our lives are filled with loops that hurt us, heal us, make us laugh, and, sometimes, leave us wanting more. This hour, Radiolab revisits the strange things that emerge when something happens, then happens again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and… well, again.

In this episode of Radiolab, Jad and Robert try to explain an inexplicable comedy act, listen to a loop that literally dies in your ear, and they learn about a loop that sent a shudder up the collective spine of mathematicians everywhere. Finally, they talk to a woman who got to watch herself think the thought that she was watching herself think the thought that she was watching herself think the thought that ... you get the point.

With Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler,  Alex Bellos, Steven Strogatz, Janna Levin, and Melanie Thernstrom. Plus mind-bending musical accompaniment from Laguardia Arts High School singers Nathaniel Sabat, Julian Soto, Eli Greenhoe, Kelly Efthimiu, Julia Egan, and Ruby Froom.

You can find the video Christine Campbell made of her mom Mary Sue here.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

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Robert Krulwich:                     I guess my first question is what conceivable set of circumstances led to you doing what you did?

Kurt Braunohler:                     I just thought it would be a weird thing to do.

Kristen Schaal:                        Yeah.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Yeah. It's like well, that would be ... we don't know if it's funny, but we tried it out.

Kristen Schaal:                        Yeah. Is it gonna be weird? We'll do it.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Yeah. Is it gonna alienate half the audience? Yeah. Let's do it.

Kristen Schaal:                        Let's do it.

Kristen Schaal:                        [SFX] Thank you so much.

Kurt Braunohler:                     We are so-

Jad Abumrad:                          Okay. Wait, just to set things up.

Robert Krulwich:                     I think you better.

Jad Abumrad:                          Those two people that you just heard.

Kristen Schaal:                        Kristen Schaal.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing) And Kurt Braunohler.

Jad Abumrad:                          They are comedians.

Kristen Schaal:                        Good.

Robert Krulwich:                     That's it.

Jad Abumrad:                          We first heard about the bit you're about to hear from Jesse Thorn.

Jesse Thorn:                            Yes.

Jad Abumrad:                          The host of the Sound of Young America.

Jesse Thorn:                            Yes.

Jad Abumrad:                          Great show. Are you rolling over there, Jessie?

Jesse Thorn:                            No. We're recording it. Okay. Checking my phone. Okay, yeah. I'm rolling.

Kristen Schaal:                        Thank you so much.

Robert Krulwich:                     So, you set it up. When Kurt and Kristen walk on stage, what happens?

Jesse Thorn:                            Well, there's a couple of jokes up top. They joke about this TV show that they hosted in the '70s.

Kristen Schaal:                        …called Uncle Ben's Farmyard Courthouse.

Kurt Braunohler:                     It explained the American judicial system using a courthouse made completely of animals.

Kristen Schaal:                        Yeah, it was canceled immediately.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Yeah, I think that was-

Jesse Thorn:                            The audience is kind of laughing at the jokes thinking like, "Oh, this is going to be a regular comedy sketch.

Kristen Schaal:                        We're gonna just sketch tonight. Okay.

Kurt Braunohler:                     All right. Here we go.

Kristen Schaal:                        Are you ready?

Kurt Braunohler:                     Are you ready? I'm ready.

Kristen Schaal:                        Okay.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Okay.

Jesse Thorn:                            Then they go into this song.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing)

Jesse Thorn:                            Kurt does this maniacal singing and clapping, and Kristen is doing this horsey dance.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing)

Jad Abumrad:                          (Laughs) It just keeps going.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing)

Robert Krulwich:                     How much longer can you do this for?

Jad Abumrad:                          And like why?

Kristen Schaal:                        Repetition, Jad.

Kurt Braunohler:                     When we do it, we ... it's like after the third repetition, people will laugh. They get it like, "Oh, they're just gonna do that."

Kristen Schaal:                        Over and over.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Then somewhere around the fourth time-

Kristen Schaal:                        Then it's not ... it's really not funny.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Really not funny.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing)

Kristen Schaal:                        The audience is quiet, feeling like, "I'm done with it."

Kurt Braunohler:                     I'm done. I don't wanna watch this anymore.

Jesse Thorn:                            Why are they still doing it? And then-

Kurt Braunohler:                     Then that changes to actual hatred. They're like, "You stupid people. You two stupid people." But somewhere between 9 and 11, then they're like, "I like these stupid people."

Kristen Schaal:                        Oh my god, they're so stupid. Then they're like, "God."

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing).

Jesse Thorn:                            Then you get this next level, which is they can't continue doing this. Then they do continue doing this. And then they do continue doing it.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing)

Jesse Thorn:                            Like they really - their eyes are starting to cross.

Kurt Braunohler:                     At that point I’m dripping sweat. Kristen's angry that I've gone that long.

Kristen Schaal:                        I'm just like, "Looking at you. Looking at you."

Jesse Thorn:                            I mean you can hear Kurt in that thing like losing track of the song because he's going into some kind of fugue state.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing)

Kurt Braunohler:                     I have had her on stage whisper, "Stop it."

Kristen Schaal:                        Yeah. [inaudible] I’m working my ass off.

Kurt Braunohler:                     (Singing)

Jesse Thorn:                            This is maybe my favorite thing in the history of the world.

Jesse Thorn:                            What I love about it is that your brain is trying to make it into what you want it to be, which is a joke, but there is no joke happening. So what these two people are doing is creating the expectation that the expectation is going to be broken, but then breaking that expectation that the expectation is going to be broken by just delivering the thing that they've been delivering over and over for the past 10 minutes.

Jad Abumrad:                          What's the longest you've taken it?

Kristen Schaal:                        10 minutes in Australia because you were drunk.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Yeah. It seemed like 10 minutes. We can't be sure if it was 10 minutes.

Kristen Schaal:                        You were drunk.

Kurt Braunohler:                     It seems like there's no way it's 10 minutes.

Kristen Schaal:                        I will tell you what it was 10 minutes. And the audience went crazy.


Jad Abumrad:                          Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:                     I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:                          This is Radiolab. And today –

Robert Krulwich:                     Today, it's all about

Jad Abumrad:                          Loops.

Robert Krulwich:                     Things that happen over-

Jad Abumrad:                          And over-

Robert Krulwich:                     And over-

Jad Abumrad:                          And over-

Robert Krulwich:                     And over-

Jad Abumrad:                          And over-

Robert Krulwich:                     And over-

Jad Abumrad:                          And over. Coming up, loops that hurt you.

Robert Krulwich:                     Strange.

Jad Abumrad:                          Loops that heal you.

Robert Krulwich:                     Dangerous things.

Jad Abumrad:                          Loops that scare you.

Robert Krulwich:                     Loops.

Jad Abumrad:                          And loops that eat you.

Robert Krulwich:                     And loops that incomplete you.

Jad Abumrad:                          The what?

Robert Krulwich:                     Shh.

                             [Music ends]

Robert Krulwich:                     So where are you guys? What-

Christine Campbell:                 We're in San Francisco.

Robert Krulwich:                     In San Francisco. So you're not in Texas.

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah.

Mary Sue Campbell:                No. Just sounds like we're in Texas.

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah. She's from Texas.

Robert Krulwich:                     Oh.

Jad Abumrad:                          Can you guys actually just, if you don't mind, introduce yourself so we know, just we have your name and all that.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Sure. I'm Mary Sue Campbell. I live in Novato, California, and my daughter Christine is-

Christine Campbell:                 30 years old, I live in San Francisco. I was raised in Novato in the house that said [inaudible 00:07:56].

Robert Krulwich:                     Shall we begin?

Christine Campbell:                 Okay.

Robert Krulwich:                     Tell me the beg- how the story starts.

Christine Campbell:                 From the beginning.

Mary Sue Campbelle:              Well, I think, it was odd. Christine actually called me Tuesday morning, about 10 o’clock, and just said, "Oh, what are you doing, mom?" And I said, "Oh, I'm just gonna go out in the yard and do some yard work and run some errands." And she                                                   said, "Well you ought to do the yard work early because it's gonna be hot today."

Jad Abumrad:                          So, we're in the summertime.

Mary Sue Campbell:                It was summertime. Yeah, it was August.

Christine Campbell:                 It was August. Yeah.

Mary Sue Campbell:                August 24th. Apparently, what? 10 minutes later?

Christine Campbell:                 About half an hour later, yeah.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Half hour later, she said I called her.

Christine Campbell:                 She had left me a voicemail, something like, "Hey, Christine, it's mom. Something's not right. Something's wrong. I need you to call me back." So, I gave her a call back. She said, "Something about the house isn't right. There's things look weird                                                 in here." "What's weird? What are you talking about?" Then she said, "Well, I'm looking at the calendar, and it says August 2010." I'm like, "Uh-huh."

Mary Sue Campbell:                Next.

Christine Campbell:                 She's like, "Well, that's not right." I said, "Well, yes, it is, it's August 24th, 2010." As soon as I said that out loud, I grabbed my purse to leave. "Oh my god, she's had a stroke." That was my first reaction. Oh, that makes me feel emotional. And so -

Robert Krulwich:                     Christine said she walked out of her house to the car, keeping her mom on the phone.

Christine Campbell:                 What else do you see? I'm just trying to keep her talking to me.

Robert Krulwich:                     All the while, her mom is telling her one thing after another, just doesn't look right.

Christine Campbell:                 She says, "There's a strange black truck on the driveway," which is the truck that belongs to her boyfriend that has been parked there for 10 years. I'm of course, increasingly – I mean, I'm just freaking out at this point.

Robert Krulwich:                     So she hangs up with her mom and then calls the paramedics, and a half hour later, Christine arrives at the hospital.

Christine Campbell:                 By the time I walked in, she had been there for five or 10 minutes at the most. As soon as I walked in, the doctor greeted me and said –

Jonathan Valeos:                     I said –

Robert Krulwich:                     This is her doctor, Jonathan Vlahos.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     "Christine, it's immediately evident, it's not a stroke, not an infection."

Christine Campbell:                 That's a huge relief.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     But I said –

Christine Campbell:                 Said, "Your mother has transient global amnesia.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     Transient global amnesia.

Robert Krulwich:                     Transient global...

Jad Abumrad:                          How did those words hit you?

Christine Campbell:                 I'll be honest with you. I had no idea what that meant. I think the word I heard the most was amnesia.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     You mother has lost her ability to form new memories.

Christine Campbell:                 She can't remember.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     But –

Christine Campbell:                 He said, it's not going to last forever. It usually lasts between 1 and 24 hours and we're not sure what causes it.

Jad Abumrad:                          And it’s at this point, where the story goes from something kind of frightening to something a little more surreal.

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah. So when I came in –

Jad Abumrad:                          Her mother is sitting up in bed.

Christine Campbell:                 She's a smiler. She immediately started asking questions.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Okay. So what's the date?

Christine Campbell:                 I said, well, it's Tuesday, August 24th. Of course, we have a video on YouTube of this.

Mary Sue Campbell:                My birthday has already passed?

Christine Campbell:                 Yep.

Mary Sue Campbell:                I'm trying to remember if I remember that. I'm trying to remember the last date I remember. I don't remember my birthday.

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah. We hung out. You came over to my house, and we watched a video that I made for you when I was in Texas. All of your sisters and some of your brothers said happy birthday to you on the video. Yeah. We still have the video, so you can watch it again. But you're gonna remember eventually. They said it's just temporary.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Where was it? Was it at home? Do I [inaudible]

Christine Campbell:                 You're at home. Yep, you're at home doing some gardening. You called me and you're feeling confused. So I called the paramedics have them come and get you. Then we came here. Did a bunch of tests on you.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Okay. So what's the date?

Christine Campbell:                 August 24th. It's Tuesday.

Mary Sue Campbell:                I'm trying to remember the last date I remember. I mean, I don't remember my birthday.

Christine Campbell:                 You don't remember your birthday, yeah.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Yeah. That must have just been recently.

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah. A couple weeks ago.

Jad Abumrad:                          Now, you might have missed it but this conversation they're having just started over.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Since August –

Jad Abumrad:                          Because every 90 seconds, Mary Sue's memory resets.

Christine Campbell:                 August 24th.

Jad Abumrad:                          What's strange is the repetition, like we started that last clip you heard with her saying this.

Mary Sue Campbell:                I'm trying to remember the last date I remember.

Jad Abumrad:                          90 seconds later, after her memory resets, she says –

Mary Sue Campbell:                I'm trying to remember the last date I remember.

Jad Abumrad:                          90 seconds later –

Mary Sue Campbell:                I'm trying to remember the last date I remember.

Jad Abumrad:                          And as you watch this video for a few minutes, you realized what's happening here is that Mary Sue…

Christine Campbell:                 Do you remember what day of the week it is?

Mary Sue Campbell:                No.

Jad Abumrad:                          ...is in a loop. And it goes like this. First, the date.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Okay. So, what's the date?

Christine Campbell:                 August 24th.

Jesse Thorn:                            She then responds in almost the same way every time.

Mary Sue Campbell:                My birthday has already passed?

Christine Campbell:                 Yep.

Jesse Thorn:                            She's missed her birthday.

Mary Sue Campbell:                [inaudible] my birthday.

Christine Campbell:                 Yep.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Darn.

Jad Abumrad:                          Every time she says that darn in exactly the same way. Like if you fast forward…

Mary Sue Campbell:                It's already past my birthday.

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Darn.

Jesse Thorn:                            She must enjoy her birthday quite a bit.

Christine Campbell:                 You're gonna remember it eventually.

Jad Abumrad:                          Then she laughs.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Hey. What happened?

Jad Abumrad:                          Then they recap.

Christine Campbell:                 You're working in the garden, and you gave me a call.

Jad Abumrad:                          Christine explains the whole thing. It's usually when she says the word paramedics.

Christine Campbell:                 So we called the paramedics…

Jad Abumrad:                          Right there.

Christine Campbell:                  ...and have them come and pick you up.

Jad Abumrad:                          That Mary Sue's eyes get really wide in this look of sheer utter disbelief.

Christine Campbell:                 Yes.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Yeah. Isn't that creepy? I mean, every single time when I watched it.

Jad Abumrad:                          You say that over and over. You say, "Isn't that creepy?"

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah, I was just gonna say.

Mary Sue Campbell:                This is creepy.

Christine Campbell:                 I know.

Jad Abumrad:                          90 seconds later –

Mary Sue Campbell:                This is so creepy.

Jad Abumrad:                          90 seconds later –

Mary Sue Campbell:                This is so creepy.

Jad Abumrad:                          It's often at this point, right after creepy, that she resets.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Okay. I don't know what day of the week is.

Christine Campbell:                 It’s Tuesday.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Like somebody put it on rewind.

Jesse Thorn:                            Over and over and over again.

Mary Sue Campbell:                  Is it after my birthday?

Christine Campbell:                 Yes.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Darn.

Mary Sue Campbell:                I had repeated the birthday so much that the nurse apparently was behind me mouthing the words, "Oh, did I miss my birthday."

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah. It’s almost like Groundhogs Day in here.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Yep, Groundhogs Day.

Christine Campbell:                 This is like every two minutes we're doing a loop.

Mary Sue Campbell:                We ask the same thing again.

Christine Campbell:                 Yes. We have had the same conversation over and over again every two minutes for the last two and a half hours.

Mary Sue Campbe:                  Two and a half hours? Get out of here.

Christine Campbell:                 Yes, I know.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Same thing. Two and a half hours?

Christine Campbell:                 Same thing.

Mary Sue Campbell:                I say the same thing for two and a half hours?

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah. We can't seem to talk about anything else. That is what we're talking about today.

Mary Sue Campbell:                What day of the week is it?

Christine Campbell:                 Tuesday, August 24th.

Mary Sue Campbell:                I missed my birthday.

Christine Campbell:                 You didn't miss it. You were there. Yeah. I'm sure you had a good time.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Watching it, I wanted to slap me. You know? I wanted to reach out and just slap me and say, "Damn it, I just told you that."

Christine Campbell:                 For the record, I would never slap my mother.

Mary Sue Campbell:                No, she would not. No, she would not.

Robert Krulwich:                     Okay. our big question here is clearly, this is a person who's lost her memory. Why would her behavior for one cycle to the next be so precisely and consistently the same, I mean sometimes exactly the same?

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah. Why?

Christine Campbell:                 I think what it is, is one of the things the nurses said is that when you have something like this, your true self comes out.

Robert Krulwich:                     Huh.

Jad Abumrad:                          Your true, the word true is interesting. So –

Mary Sue Campbell:                Yeah.

Christine Campbell:                 Yeah. Yeah. Well she said-

Jad Abumrad:                          Is that what we're seeing on the video is your true self?

Christine Campbell:                 Oh yeah. That's my mom through and through right there. She's-

Jad Abumrad:                          What Christine means is not the repetition, but that her mom keeps asking so many questions.

Christine Campbell:                 She's inquisitive. She just wants to know what's going on across the board.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Yeah. I love problems. I love puzzles.

Jad Abumrad:                          Are you like a Sudoku fiend.

Mary Sue Campbell:                You know, I am, I am - I hate to admit this.

Christine Campbell:                 Oh, god.

Mary Sue Campbell:                I play escape room games on the Internet.

Jad Abumrad:                          Escape room. What are those?

Mary Sue Campbell:                They're stupid little games where they have little hidden pixels that you find you're stuck in a room and you have to get out. You've got to find the key to the door. And there's all these little hidden places.

Robert Krulwich:                     Oh that's just the perfect metaphor then.

Christine Campbell:                 Oh yeah.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Yeah. I was my own escape room.

Christine Campbell:                 Do you remember what day of the week it is?

Mary Sue Campbe:                  No. I have no idea, what day is it?

Christine Campb:                    Tuesday.

Jad Abumrad:                          There's a different way of seeing this. First of all, Jonathan Vlahos, that ER doctor who's seen a bunch of these cases, he said, "Well, that puzzler instinct, that's not just Mary Sue."

Jonathan Vlahos:                     What everybody does is struggle over and over again with where am I and when am I.

Jad Abumrad:                          It's just the brain in survival mode. Another thing that everybody does, and he's seen about six of these patients so far, is that everybody, not just Mary Sue, but everybody, becomes –

Jonathan Vlahos:                     A broken record right down to the phrasing of the sentences.

Jad Abumrad:                          Which creeps them out a little bit.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     It makes the brain seem a little bit more like a machine. You know, you give the machine the exact same set of inputs.

Jad Abumrad:                          Every 90 seconds give it the same doctor, the same hospital room, same beeping machines.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     And see if the output ever varies and –

Jad Abumrad:                          It doesn't.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     It almost seems like the patient has no free will.

Jad Abumrad:                          And so sometimes, in the back of his head, he thinks, "God, if I had that condition, and someone videotaped me,"

Jonathan Vlahos:                     I would love to see my own tape.

Robert Krulwich:                     Why?

Jonathan Vlahos:                     You know, I think, I wanna see could I somehow escape the loop or would I end up with the rest of us.

Jad Abumrad:                          Now, thankfully, according to Jonathan, what normally happens in this condition is that as time goes on –

Jonathan Vlahos:                     That 90-second loop –

Jad Abumrad:                          ...starts to slowly expand.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     It's actually more like two minutes or three minutes.

Jad Abumrad:                          Eventually, four minutes.

Jonathan Vlahos:                     Now, it's five minutes.

Jad Abumrad:                          For Mary Sue, after a few hours, as her loop got longer and longer, her old memories start to creep back in.

Christine Campbell:                 By that evening, she was remembering up until like that Sunday.

Jad Abumrad:                          A few hours later, her memory began to extend into Monday morning.

Christine Campbell:                 By the time we left the hospital, she remembered Monday night.

Jad Abumrad:                          And then finally –

Robert Krulwich:                     Shall we begin?

Christine Campbell:                 Okay.

Robert Krulwich:                     Tell me how this story starts.     

Christine Campbell:                 From the beginning.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Well, I think, it was odd. Christine actually called me Tuesday morning, about 10 o’clock, and just said, "Oh, what are you doing, mom?" And apparently, what, 10 minutes later –

Christine Campbell:                 About half an hour later.

Mary Sue Campbell:                Half hour later, she said I called her.

Christine Campbell:                 She had left me a voicemail…

Robert Krulwich:                     I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:                          I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:                     We'll be right back.

Voiceover:                              Message one.

Kurt Braunohler:                     This is Kurt Braunohler. These are the words you've told me to read. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

Christine Campbell:                 Hi. My name is Christine Campbell.

Mary Sue Campbell:                This is Mary Sue Campbell.

Christine Campbell:                 Here we go.

Mary Sue Campbell:                More information about Sloan at-

Christine Campbell:                 WWW

Kurt Braunohler:                     Dot Sloan Dot Org.

Christine Campbell:                 Thanks.

Kurt Braunohler:                     Hope that was dumb enough for you.

Voiceover:                              End of message.

Robert Krulwich:                     Hi. I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by WIX.com. Use WIX's artificial design intelligence to create a professional website right from your phone. Just tell WIXADI about your self or your business, it will create the perfect site for your needs based on billions of combinations. Just go to wix.com/radiolab to get 10% off when you're ready to upgrade. That is WIX.com/radiolab.

Jad Abumrad:                          Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:                     And I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:                          This is Radiolab. This hour, we're talking about –

Robert Krulwich:                     Loops.

Jad Abumrad:                          Loops.

Robert Krulwich:                     Loops.

Alex Bellos:                             Okay.

Jad Abumrad:                          Loops.


Robert Krulwich:                     Here’s one for you.

Alex Bellos:                             I mean zero is the obvious loop. And its loop shape is part of why zero is zero.

Jad Abumrad:                          Who's this?

Robert Krulwich:                     This is Alex Bellos.

Alex Bellos:                             And I'm the author of Here's Looking at Euclid.

                             [Singing stops]

Alex Bellos:                             When I was a kid, I used to think zero’s just like a hole with nothing in it. But actually, zero was chosen by the Indians as kind of reflecting the eternal cycles of the faces of heaven.


Alex Bellos:                             The Romans and the Greeks and the Jews, we didn't have a zero. We just had ... everything started at one. One reason why we didn't is that we're kind afraid of the void.


Jad Abumrad:                          Afraid of the void, what, like –

Robert Krulwich:                     Well, I mean, how would you describe something –


Robert Krulwich:                     ...that isn't there?


Robert Krulwich:                     There's nothing to say.

Jad Abumrad:                          And that's scary somehow?

Robert Krulwich:                     Yeah. It's an emptiness and a nothingness. It means you're so alone, you don't even know where you are.

Alex Bellos:                             This was a psychological barrier to us grasping the zero. In India, everything and nothing was the same thing. They have this sort of fluidity. They grasped this idea of nothingness was something.

Robert Krulwich:                     Oddly enough, the way they decided to represent the nothing was they took a little piece of nothing and they drew a circle around it, which turns the nothing into a something.

Alex Bellos:                             It's a loop.

Robert Krulwich:                     And it's a loop.


Alex Bellos:                             This idea of eternity and continuity and infinity is actually contained with the numeral for zero.


Alex Bellos:                             I mean I kind of love the idea that actually here’s the most mystical magical spiritual digit of them all. And it’s – we use it every day.

William Basinski:                     See. We rolling?

Mark Phillips:                          Yeah.

William Basinski:                     So here's two of the workhorses. These are like my old –

Jad Abumrad:                          Next up, a story from reporter, Mark Phillips.

William Basinski:                     All right. As you can see here, there's all these containers of tape loops.

Jad Abumrad:                          Okay. So, set this up. Who is this guy?

Mark Phillips:                          His name is William Basinski. He's a musician who makes this really hard to describe music.


Mark Phillips:                          He's been doing it for about 30 years. Basically, what he does is he takes a little bit of classical music or muzak, records it onto tape, analog tape.

William Basinski:                     Seeing here. This might be terrible.

Mark Phillips:                          He loops it.

William Basinski:                     See if I can find something from-

Mark Phillips:                          He cuts the beginning, the end, tapes it together into a circle, threads it through a tape machine, messes with the speeds. And you get something that sounds like this.


Mark Phillps:                           This little phrase that just repeats.

William Basinski:                     Over and over and over again.

Mark Phillips:                          And never changes.

William Basinski:                     You know, Loops are everywhere. They're cycles. They're in nature. They're just universal. And if you can find a loop that can repeat without becoming redundant, then you can sort fall into a different space and time even. Sort of like a bubble of eternity or something, I don't know.

Mark Phillips:                          So that's what that sounds like.

William Basinski:                     Well, in the summer of 2001, I was archiving all these old tape loops, transferring them to digital.

Mark Phillips:                          And something kind of weird happened. He grabbed this one piece of tape.

William Basinski:                     Put it on.


William Basinski:                     It was this wonderful, grave, very stately loop I’d totally forgotten about. And I set it up and turned on the CD burner and left the control room, went to the kitchen, got some coffee, and came back and I started realizing something was changing. I looked, and I could see the tape was shredding.

Mark Phillips:                          The thing to understand about tape is that when you record music onto analog tape, onto a bit of it, that music-

William Basinski:                     What it is, is it's iron oxide powder glued to just a piece of plastic.

Jad Abumrad:                          So the iron powder is actually the music?

Mark Phillips:                          Yeah.

William Basinski:                     But after 20, 30 years,

Mark Phillips:                          The glue looses its strength

Willaim Basinski:                     And the dust falls off

Mark Phillips:                          Onto the floor.

Jad Abumrad:                          His music was actually falling on the floor?

Mark Phillips:                          Yeah.

William Basinski:                     And I thought, "Oh, my god. What's gonna happen?" What happened was in the course of about an hour...

Mark Phillips:                          The music disintegrated. You put more loops on and it kept happening. The really interesting thing was while some disintegrated quickly, some slowly, they all sort of had the same pattern.

Jad Abumrad:                          What do you mean?

Mark Phillips:                          Just listen to this one.


Mark Phillips:                          This is one of his loops at the beginning.

Jad Abumrad:                          Okay.

Mark Phillips:                          After it went around and around for 20 minutes or so, the dust started to fall off and then it sounded like this. All the notes are still there, but the tails –

Jad Abumrad:                          Are getting shorter.

Mark Phillips:                          Yeah. That's what would always happen.

William Basinski:                     The sustains and decays of the notes seemed to fall away like from the back moving backwards, backwards.

Mark Phillips:                          It gets shorter and shorter. Instead of being held for four seconds, it's held for three seconds, two seconds. Finally, you just really hear –

William Basinski:                     Like the attacks and the accents.

Mark Phillips:                          Just the beginnings of the notes. Only the beginning.

William Basinski:                     Those seem to hold on.

Mark Phillips:                          At least for a little while.

William Basinski:                     I was thinking, "Wow, this is like I'm recording the life and death of a melody." It just made me think of human beings, and how we die.

Mark Phillips:                          You can really hear the disintegration on this particular loop. I think this was number five. It starts sounding like the rest like this. But after just 15 minutes, it's basically completely gone. The tape on this one, you know, tape is normally brown. Right now, it's clear, like scotch tape.

Jad Abumrad:                          The dust is gone.

Mark Phillips:                          There’s a little bit of brown here, but now it's just clear.

Jad Abumrad:                          It's almost all gone.

                             [Music fades out]

Robert Krulwich:                     This next loop is a sly one. You're gonna have to wait a bit for its loopiness to kick in.

Jad Abumrad:                          Ready?

Lynn Levy:                               Born ready.

Jad Abumrad:                          Producer Lynn Levy.

Craig Smith:                            The smell of a dead whale is - you have to experience to know what it's like. It's like nothing I've ever smelled.

Lynn Levy:                               This is Craig Smith, Professor of Oceanography.

Craig Smith:                            It's really putrid.

Lynn Levy:                               Back when Craig was a graduate student…

Craig Smith:                            This is in 1982.

Lynn Levy:                               He heard there was a dead whale floating off the coast of San Diego.

Craig Smith:                            About a third out of the water with sea birds on it, pecking at it.

Jad Abumrad:                          How big?

Craig Smith:                            Around 25 to 30 feet long.

Lynn Levy:                               So what is that, like a train car?

Craig Smith:                            More like a size of a small yacht, I guess.

Jad Abumrad:                          Woah!

Lynn Levy:                               Big, freaking whale.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah.

Lynn Levy:                               And Craig wanted to sink that whale.

Craig Smith:                            No one had ever studied what happens when a whale sinks to the sea floor. People just speculated about it.

Jad Abumrad:                          So no one had ever followed it down to the bottom?

Lynn Levy:                               No one had followed the whale to the bottom.

Jad Abumrad:                          Huh.

Lynn Levy:                               Right?

Craig Smith:                            So we towed the carcass out to sea.

Lynn Levy:                               They had all these little scraps of steel that they tied to the whale's tail one at a time.

Craig Smith:                            About 2,000 pounds. And…

Lynn Levy:                               Nothing.

Craig Smith:                            It wasn't enough to sink the whale.

Lynn Levy:                               Whale kept floating there like a big smelly balloon. Its belly was all full of..

Craig Smith:                            De-compositional gas.

Lynn Levy:                               And the captain of the ship goes, "Well,"

Craig Smith:                            I have a big rifle, let's bring that out. So, he got out his rifle.

Lynn Levy:                               And all the other guys in the boat take out their guns.

Jad Abumrad:                          Shooting the whale?

Craig Smith:                            Yeah.

Lynn Levy:                               This also doesn't work.

Jad Abumrad:                          It doesn't work?

Craig Smith:                            It didn't really do anything.

Lynn Levy:                               But Craig tried again and again. Eventually, not with that whale, but with others, he got to see something so cool.

Craig Smith:                            So, a whale dies and sinks down into the dark. And..

Lynn Levy:                               And then? This incredible cycle begins.

Craig Smith:                            Within minutes, scavengers will be at the carcass.

Lynn Levy:                               Lots of them.

Jad Abumrad:                          How do these little creatures see the whale if it's so dark?

Lynn Levy:                               They smell it.

Jad Abumrad:                          They smell the whale?

Lynn Levy:                               Mm-hmm.

Craig Smith:                            Within hours, it may well have hundreds of hagfish on.

Lynn Levy:                               They're terrifying..

Craig Smith:                            These eel-like animals, they have grinding plates instead of teeth. And they burrow into the carcass.

Lynn Levy:                               Hundreds, like a hagfish convention.

Craig Smith:                            This writhing mass of eels.

Lynn Levy:                               What does that look like?

Craig Smith:                            Well, it looks like a giant Medusa head.

Lynn Levy:                               Over the next few days, a bunch of other scavengers show up.

Craig Smith:                            Including stone crab, shrimp, sea scuds, sharks, crustaceans.

Lynn Levy:                               Huge feeding frenzy, flesh flying everywhere. Sometimes, the hagfish get kicked off, and they try to defend their territory.

Craig Smith:                            Hagfish have a very interesting ability to produce mucus. You can put a couple of hagfish into a bucket of water and kick it and they can produce enough mucus to essentially turn the bucket of water into something like gelatin.

Jad Abumrad:                          Wow. It's like Medusa head in a cloud of mucus.

Lynn Levy:                               And all that is just the first stage.

Craig Smith:                            The mobile scavenger stage.

Jad Abumrad:                          Okay. So what happens after that?

Craig Smith:                            Well, after the mobile scavenger stage is enrichment opportunist stage.

Lynn Levy:                               At that point…

Craig Smith:                            The whale is beginning to look pretty dilapidated, little bits of whale soft tissue get implanted in the sea floor.

Lynn Levy:                               And so the ground around the whale becomes its own little ecosystem, and a bunch of new animals show up.

Craig Smith:                            They are worms. They're wriggly little worms.

Lynn Levy:                               Just like tons of them.

Craig Smith:                            We can get thirty or forty thousand of them per square meter. Sometimes, the sediment around whale fall looks like a lawn of grass where these worms are just wriggling sticking up out of the sediment and waving back and forth.

Jad Abumrad:                          What color are these worms? Do you know?

Lynn Levy:                               I think they're white.

Jad Abumrad:                          So field of white worms, white grass.

Lynn Levy:                               It's kind of ghostly.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah.

Lynn Levy:                               And finally, the last stage.

Craig Smith:                            Something we call the Sulfur-loving stage. At this point, the whale looks like a skeleton just covered with this actually beautiful mat of white bacteria. It's fluffy and just looks like a polar bear's fur.

Jad Abumrad:                          Covering the bones of the whale?

Lynn Levy:                               Yeah.

Craig Smith:                            Think about a whale's skeleton draped in a polar bear fur coat.

Lynn Levy:                               Sulfur is coming out of the bones and the bacteria are just clustering around, sucking it up. For years. When you step back and look at it, these dead whales, they become like planets. And you find creatures living on them that you don't find anywhere else.

Craig Smith:                            There are now about 55 species that haven't been found in any other habitat, species of animals that only live on whale falls.

Jad Abumrad:                          Does that mean that these creatures… like the whale is their entire world, they don't know anything else?

Lynn Levy:                               For some of them, yeah.

Jad Abumrad:                          What do they do the rest of the time? I mean, this can't happen that often.

Craig Smith:                            Well, that's a good question. Maybe that they are living as fugitive species.

Lynn Levy:                               In other words, they just drift around, sort of waiting. Can I say hoping? For [SFX]. And when that happens…

Craig Smith:                            They grow quickly, produce hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of larvae that they then broadcast out into the water column.

Lynn Levy:                               Then their babies drift around in the darkness, waiting until [SFX].

Craig Smith:                            Few of them find another such habitat, tens or maybe even hundreds of kilometers away.

Lynn Levy:                               And repeat. So altogether, how long can a whale fall last?

Craig Smith:                            Well, a whale fall can last, a large whale skeleton out of a blue large, blue whale or a fin whale can support a community for 50 to 75 years.

Lynn Levy:                               Wow.

Craig Smith:                            Which really astounded us.

Lynn Levy:                               And how does that compare to the life span of the whale?

Craig Smith:                            Well, it's probably pretty comparable, actually. Whales live on the order of 50 to 70 years.

Lynn Levy:                               There's something poetic about that, the idea that for the same amount of time that the whale lived, it's gonna support this life.

Craig Smith:                            Yeah, it is very appealing.

Jad Abumrad:                          Thanks, Lynn. Radiolab will continue in a moment.


Jad Abumrad:                          Okay. Ready?

Robert Krulwich:                     Okay.

Jad Abumrad:                          This is Radiolab.

Robert Krulwich:                     Oh okay.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah, you start. Yeah.

Robert Krulwich:                     Okay. This is Radiolab.

Jad Abumrad:                          Today, we're talking about loops.

Robert Krulwich:                     I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:                          I’m Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab.

Robert Krulwich:                     It's all about loops.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yep, I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich:                     And I'm Robert. You're listening to Radiolab.

Jad Abumrad:                          Today we're talking about loops.

Robert Krulwich:                     I'm Robert.

Jad Abumrad:                          I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich:                     And it's all about loops.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yep. I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich:                     I'm Robert.

Jad Abumrad:                          We're talking about loops.

Robert Krulwich:                     Speaking of things that happened over and over and over again. On the show here-

Jad Abumrad:                          Hello.

Robert Krulwich:                     Here he is again.

Steven Strogatz:                      Hi, Jad.

Jad Abumrad:                          Hey, Steve.

Robert Krulwich:                     Steven Strogatz.

Jad Abumrad:                          How are you?

Robert Krulwich:                     Mathematician, Cornell University.

Jad Abumrad:                          How is it going?

Steven Strogatz:                      I'm good.

Jad Abumrad:                          Steve told us a story about a mathematical loop.

Robert Krulwich:                     That threw mathematicians all over the world…

Jad Abumrad:                          For [Steven Strogatz laughs] a loop.

Jad Abumrad:                          The story starts way back with a guy named

Steven Strogatz:                      Gottlob Frege.

Robert Krulwich:                     Gottlob Frege. How do you spell Gottlob?

Steven Strogatz:                      Yeah. It's not Gottleib. It seems to be L-O-B at the end unless it's a typo in every book I've ever seen.

Robert Krulwich:                     Now, to set this up very quickly, Gottlob Frege was a mathematician back in the 1870s and '80s, and he had a dream that mathematics could unlock the secrets of the universe, that you could maybe even build a machine, feed it some basic mathematical rules, and it would just start churning out discoveries.

Jad Abumrad:                          Wouldn't even need a human being.

Robert Krulwich:                     That's how powerful he thought math could be.

Jad Abumrad:                          But that led him to a question. If math is the most fundamental thing in the universe, what is the most fundamental part…

Robert Krulwich:                     Of math.

Steven Strogatz:                      What's at the foundation? Is it numbers? Is it one, two, three?

Jad Abumrad:                          Well, that's what you would think.

Robert Krulwich:                     But Gottlob…

Steven Strogatz:                      He said, "No, there's a deeper thing than numbers. The deepest thing of all is what today we call sets. The set of things.

Jad Abumrad:                          The set.

Steven Strogatz:                      Yeah. So, what's the set? You could...

Robert Krulwich:                     Steve explained it to us using, of all things, Sesame Street.

Jad Abumrad:                          Really old episode.

Steven Strogatz:                      As far as just to set it up here, it's two people working at the Furry Arms Hotel, there's Humphrey –

Humphrey:                             All right, Ingrid –

Steven Strogatz:                      Who's got a green nose and a pink face, and his girlfriend... or I actually know what she is. She might be his wife, Ingrid. They're hotel keepers and Ernie is in the background. Ingrid and Humphrey are taking an order.

Humphrey:                             Hello. How may I help you?

Steven Strogatz:                      Room service order from a room full of penguins.

Speaker 27:                             We're hungry.

Steven Strogatz:                      Humphrey says, "I'll take your order, Mr. Penguin, sir."

Humphrey:                             What would you like?

Speaker 27:                             Fish.

Humphrey:                             Fish.

Speaker 28:                             A fish.

Humphrey:                             Fish.

Speaker 29:                             Fish.

Humphrey:                             Fish.

Speaker 30:                             Fish.

Humphrey:                             Fish.

Steven Strogatz:                      Then Humphrey says, "Let me check if I got that right."

Humphrey:                             Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.

Speaker 27:                             You got it.

Steven Strogatz:                      Then he calls over to Ingrid who's gonna call it into the kitchen. So he tells Ingrid.

Humphrey:                             Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.

Steven Strogatz:                      Ingrid says, "Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish."

Ingrid:                                     Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.

Humphrey:                             No.

Steven Strogatz:                      Humphrey, "No. That's not right.

Humphrey:                             Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.

Steven Strogatz:                      Because she only says it five times. But then, Ernie explains-

Ernie:                                      Excuse me, Ingrid and Humphrey, I have a better way for you to do this.

Humphrey:                             A better way?

Ernie:                                      Mm-hmm. Count the fish.

Humphrey:                             Fish?

Ernie:                                      One.

Humphrey:                             Fish.

Ernie:                                      Two.

Humphrey:                             Fish.

Ernie:                                      Three, four, five, six fish.

Ingrid:                                     Holy macro.

Steven Strogatz:                      They both realized, Ingrid and Humphrey, how powerful this is. They said, "Does it work for?"

Humphrey:                             Does it work on other stuff? Say cinnamon rolls?

Ernie:                                      Yep.

Humphrey:                             Spark plugs?

Steven Strogatz:                      Spark plugs.

Ernie:                                      Absolutely.

Humphrey:                             Wow!

Ingrid:                                     Wow!

Steven Strogatz:                      That's the point, that what cinnamon buns and spark plugs and fish, the sets have in common is that there are six in each. If you try to say what does six really mean, it's the thing that those sets have in common.

Robert Krulwich:                     According to Steve, it's not so much the number six that's important here.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah. That's just the label for this characteristic that all these piles seemed to share.

Robert Krulwich:                     It's the pile itself, the set.

Jad Abumrad:                          That is the most basic thing.

Robert Krulwich:                     So Frege said-

Ingrid:                                     Holy macro.

Robert Krulwich:                     "Well, this is it." Sets are…

Steven Strogatz:                      The bedrock.

Robert Krulwich:                     …That I've been looking for.

Steven Strogatz:                      Yeah. We can build the rest of math on top of this.

Robert Krulwich:                     Yeah. Then I can make my math machine that will solve the universe.

Steven Strogatz:                      And I think he published a book showing how this might work except that Russell-

Robert Krulwich:                     Bertrand Russell, the mathematician.

Steven Strogatz:                      ...then found a devastating paradox that ended up, well, annihilating what Frege had tried to do.

Jad Abumrad:                          Russell's paradox has now become known as –                           

Steven Strogatz::                     The barber paradox.

Robert Krulwich:                     It's a little thought experiment. So in this case, the set is a town –

Steven Storgatz:                      Yep.

Robert Krulwich:                     A town with people.

Steven Strogatz:                      Yep.

Jad Abumrad:                          One barber.

Robert Krulwich:                     With the following rules.

Steven Strogatz:                      In this town, the barber shaves everyone who doesn't shave himself. Sounds reasonable, right?

Robert Krulwich:                     Barber shaves everyone who doesn't shave himself.

Jad Abumrad:                          So, some people shave themselves, some people go to the barber.

Steven Strogatz:                      That's the universe. We're in a town where everyone who doesn't shave himself is shaven by this barber. Now, the question is who shaves the barber?

Jad Abumrad:                          Who shaves…

Steven Strogatz:                      Remember, the barber has the property that he shaves everyone who doesn't shave himself, so he can't shave himself. On the other hand-

Jad Abumrad:                          Couldn't he…

Steven Strogatz:                      ...if he doesn't shave himself, then he's one of those people who doesn't have himself, and is therefore shaven by the barber.

Jad Abumrad:                          Well, maybe the barber... here's two solutions for you guys. The barber could not shave, couldn't he just not shave? Or maybe he could-

Steven Strogatz:                      No. Everybody in town shaves.

Jad Abumrad:                          Maybe he could set up some sort of mechanical device that's like one those [crosstalk].

Robert Krulwich:                     No, no, you can't do that. You can't change the rules.

Steven Strogatz:                      Yeah you can’t answer sensibly what happens to the barber.

Robert Krulwich:                     No one has.

Steven Strogatz:                      There's nothing to say. He either does or doesn't shave himself by ordinary Aristotelian logic because the barber can't shave himself and he can’t not shave himself. So, there's something –

Robert Krulwich:                     That's what ruined the machine that would solve the universe?

Jad Abumrad:                          Wait, but this seems –

Robert Krulwich:                     I think you could ruin an afternoon or maybe you have to wait for a couple of hours, like after lunch before you go swimming. But I can’t see that overthrowing all life's work.

Steven Strogatz:                      It does. It does. It turns out to be very, very problematic for the foundations of math.

Jad Abumrad:                          Because what this barber paradox, the reason it was so annoying to mathematicians was that math is supposed to be this logical thing, right? Logic is the lifeblood math. Yet, here, you had this little bit of math that was illogical, a self-contradicting set.

Steven Strogatz:                      A self-contradicting set.

Robert Krulwich:                     But Bertrand Russell, the guy who came up with all this, he didn't lose faith. He felt this is just a problem with set theory.

Steven Strogatz:                      Then he spent a long time trying to make a theory. I think he calls it a theory of types instead of sets. He had certain admission rules that he thought would prevent paradoxes from happening.

Jad Abumrad:                          For a while it was looking pretty good. Under Bertrand Russell’s system-

Robert Krulwich:                     There was no logical problems, no paradoxes until –

Jad Abumrad:                          This scrawny little German guy comes along. And you say his name Gödel?

Steven Strogatz:                      I hear it often pronounced... Well, I don't speak German, but mathematicians often say like the woman's piece of clothing from the old days. It sounds like girdle, girdle.

Robert Krulwich:                     I see.

Jana Levin:                              Gödel.

Jad Abumrad:                          There's kind of or, or something in the middle.

Jana Levin:                              Yeah, umlaut.

Jad Abumrad:                          This is Jana.

Jana Levin:                              Jana Levin.

Jad Abumrad:                          She has written a book about Gödel.

Jana Levin:                              I'm a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College.

Jad Abumrad:                          She says the point at which Gödel enters our story, it's 1930s, Vienna, Austria.

Jana Levin:                              He had just recently finished what would be equivalent to like a doctoral degree, a PhD.

Jad Abumrad:                          Smart dude.

Jana Levin:                              Kind of a rising star. It was no question that people around him understood it.

Jad Abumrad:                          He was also maybe… A little bit off.

Jana Levin:                              He had real breaks with reality. He was, in the biographies they call him a paranoid schizophrenic. But he seemed more of kind of obsessive, depressive. I don't know if my armchair psychology terms are accurate. He was in and out of sanitoria. He had real difficulties being sure what was real.

Jad Abumrad:                          The only reality he really trusted was math.

Jana Levin:                              Circles.

Jad Abumrad:                          Shapes.

Jana Levin:                              Prime numbers.

Jad Abumrad:                          Formulas, axioms.

Jana Levin:                              Right.

Jad Abumrad:                          At a certain point, he got into paradoxes. Perhaps it was the barber paradox that lured him in, we don't know. But he began to think about and actually experiment with some of these paradoxical loops.

Jana Levin:                              He took something like the paradox of the liar. The paradox of the liar says, this statement is a lie.

Jad Abumrad:                          This statement is a lie.

Jana Levin:                              Right. If it's true, then it's false. If it's false, then it's true.

Jad Abumrad:                          This statement is a lie. If you think about that too much, you might explode. So Gödel was interested in that phrase and for various reasons, he took it, tweaked it a little bit to come up with-

Jana Levin:                              The following statement. This statement is unprovable.

Jad Abumrad:                          This statement is unprovable.

Jana Levin:                              Which is very important to know is if it's provable, then it's unprovable.

Jad Abumrad:                          Obviously, a little bit of a word game. But Gödel thought forget words. What would happen if I converted this statement into math? Because in math, things are either provable or unprovable. They cannot be both at the same time. It's either true or false. And if it’s true? Well then, damn it –

Robert Krulwich:                     You should be able to prove it.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah.

Jana Levin:                              So he said, "I'm going to assign a special number, unique number to make that a purely mathematical statement by coding it in a very clever way into arithmetics."

Robert Krulwich:                     To be honest, we don't completely get this part.

Jana Levin:                              It's very, very clever.

Robert Krulwich:                     But once he did his mathy stuff, he had a rigorous mathematical statement right there on the page. He looked at it, and he realized that what he just said in math –

Jad Abumrad:                          Is that the following statement.

Jana Levin:                              This statement is unprovable.

Jad Abumrad:                          Is…

Jana Levin:                              It's true because it's actually unprovable.

Jad Abumrad:                          Meaning, in math, this statement actually is unprovable because it is true the logic of math will not let you prove that it is true. So it might be true. We'll just never know.

Steven Strogatz:                      Nothing like that is supposed to happen in math. Things are supposed to be true or not true.

Robert Krulwich:                     And you're supposed to be able to prove every true thing, says Steve. If there's something true that you can't prove, that means that the math is strangely, woefully incomplete.

Steven Strogatz:                      It's always called this incompleteness theorem. That's the phrase. The Gödel incompleteness theorem is that if you have a system of axioms that are consistent, meaning they don't contradict themselves, they're necessarily incomplete. That is, there are certain statements you can make within that system that you can't prove or disprove. And all of math has this character. This is the big shock. This is not just about word games about logic puzzles with barbers. This is as devastating for even just counting. For one, two, three, four. In other words, math is shot through and through with these kind of statements that you can't either prove or disprove. Seriously, the deep thinkers at the time were amazed at this. It was recognized as one of the great ideas of the 20th century, for sure, maybe of all time.

Steven Strogatz:                      Maybe I should make it more concrete. There's a question that, as far as I know, is still not solved.

Jad Abumrad:                          Steve gave us this example of a problem.

Robert Krulwich:                     Something called Goldbach's conjecture.

Jad Abumrad:                          That kind of gives you a sense of what incompleteness feels like.

Robert Krulwich:                     So, Goldbach's conjecture says that you can always write any even number as a sum of two prime numbers. So, let me give you some examples of that. Like say, 12. Remember, first of all, prime number means you can divide it by one and by itself, like seven is a prime number you could divide by 1 and 7 but nothing else. So, 12, which is an even number is 7 plus 5.

Jad Abumrad:                          Those are primes.

Steven Strogatz:                      Those are both prime numbers. Let's try another one. How about 24? That's 11 plus 13.

Robert Krulwich:                     Right.

Steven Strogatz:                      Okay? Or 36, 19 plus 17. Any even number. Now, this has been checked out to, I don't know what, billions, trillions, maybe hundreds of trillions. So, no one has ever found a counter example to Goldbach's conjecture. And here's the thing. You might think that either it's true or it's false. It might be that this statement, every even number is a sum of two primes. It might be neither true nor false, but what we today call undecidable. Undecidable is a term that comes from Gödel.

Jad Abumrad:                          Undecidable.

Steven Strogatz:                      Yeah. I mean, supposed in some ethereal or transcendental sense like that is, supposed that there's God, and God knows that this is true. Then, what about us here among the world of human beings? All we can do is check each even number. Every time we check, it's true. That would never constitute a proof because we'd never run out of numbers.

Robert Krulwich:                     If you then say that to understand everything, you either have to defer to God who does understand everything, if you believe in God. But if you don't believe in God, you then have to live with mystery and not knowing.

Steven Strogatz:                      Mm-hmm.

Robert Krulwich:                     Yes, that's all you can say?

Steven Strogatz:                      I'm gonna say yes, I'm gonna say uh-huh. Well, I think you've encapsulated it perfectly. I think that Gödel himself was, I think, a believer in all kinds of mystical things. For him, this was very freeing and liberating because it meant that there were... that we couldn't be mechanized. There was profound mystery forever.

Jad Abumrad:                          Hold – hold on. I'm on your team here, but let me just point out something. Gödel, when he died, he was not exactly liberated. He was a paranoid - he thought people were trying to poison him. He starved himself to death. He wasn't exactly liberated in the end.

Robert Krulwich:                     Well, but I choose to believe that somewhere in his tortured mind, and I guess his mind was pretty tortured, there was a little fellow humming a song, a song of liberation.


Jad Abumrad:                          Thanks to Steve Strogatz. He has a new book called Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe. And also thanks to Janna Levin, her book about Gödel is called A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.


Robert Krulwich:                     And finally, our last loopy piece.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah. And this one, like the last one, involves things feeding back on themselves, kind of like your classic positive feedback loop.

Robert Krulwich:                     Which is what exactly?

Jad Abumrad:                          Well, it's like what you can do with audio, you take a speaker and a mic, you put the ... you feed the sound from the speaker into the mic, and then back into the speaker and into the mic, it multiplies and multiplies and then you get something like –


Robert Krulwich:                     Painful. That's horrible.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah. It can definitely be painful. But that kind of feedback loop, like in the case of our next story, can also take the pain away.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yes.

Jad Abumrad:                          Comes to us from this lady.

Melanie Thernstrom:              I'm Melanie Thernstrom.

Jad Abumrad:                          She's a writer.

Melanie Thernstrom:              The author of a book on pain called The Pain Chronicles.

Jad Abumrad:                          Which is a book that began as a chronicling of her own pain, which she's been suffering from –

Melanie Thernstrom:              Every day.

Jad Abumrad:                          For the last 15 years. And what sort of pain?

Melanie Thernstrom:              Pain in my neck and right shoulder and right side of my head.

Robert Krulwich:                     All at once?

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yeah. It's all at once.

Robert Krulwich:                     Oh my gosh.

Jad Abumrad:                          Did it start with something? Did you hit it there? Or how did it start?

Melanie Thernstrom:              It didn't start with an injury of any kind, but it did start at discreet time.

Jad Abumrad:                          Goes back to 1997. She was in upstate New York at a country house on a date.

Melanie Thernstrom:              It was our first date, and I wanted to impress him. So I swam across a pond, about a mile across –

Jad Abumrad:                          Was this your idea or was this his idea?

Melanie Thernstrom:              It was my idea.

Jad Abumrad:                          Wow. That's a different kind of first date. And you made it all the way there and back?

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yes. And nothing happened, but that night –

Jad Abumrad:                          When she got into bed –

Melanie Thernstrom:              I was kept awake by this strange burning sensation in my shoulder and neck. I didn't get the head pain for four more years. That particular pain never went away and got worse over time.

Robert Krulwich:                     Burning. So, it was like a nerve was being –

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yeah. I mean, eventually, I got an MRI a couple years later and there was nerve impingement in my spine. There was –

Robert Krulwich:                     Over the years, she says, she's tried everything. She's tried drugs and she's tried physical therapy. She's tried distraction.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Like I'll go to a matinee and if it's a scary movie, I just don't stay focused on the pain.

Jad Abumrad:                          So distraction can work.

Robert Krulwich:                     But then she says as soon as she gets out of the movie, it's back.

Jad Abumrad:                          And it's angry for being ignored.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Sometimes, I’d have the sensation like that, that right side of my head was dying. The nerves were dying. Like a dead tree and that image would kind of frighten me.

Robert Krulwich:                     And that thought, she'd find that, that thought would –

Melanie Thernstrom:              Make the pain worse. And making the pain worse will inspire further negative fantasies.

Jad Abumrad:                          Which will make the pain worse.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Which will make the pain worse.

Jad Abumrad:                          Which will inspire more fantasies.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yes. So the loop goes.

Jad Abumrad:                          Positive feedback loop.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yeah.

Robert Krulwich:                     In a negative sort of way.

Jad Abumrad:                          Right. Eventually, Melanie decided, "Okay, I'm gonna write a book about this. Let me do some research."

Melanie Thernstrom:              I was reading a lot about self-inflicted pain and religious rights. And I actually went to witness a Hindu festival, Thaipusam, in Kuala Lumpur.

Jad Abumrad:                          What she saw really changed her mind about things. You can see video of this festival on YouTube.

Robert Krulwich:                     What you see is a dense crowd of folks. In the middle of the crowd, there are these monks doing insane acts of devotion.

Melanie Thernstrom:              They literally thread needles through their tongues, pokes skewers their cheeks. Weighted fish hooks dangle from their backs.

Jad Abumrad:                          And yet, she says, when she would look in their faces, they seemed relaxed.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Like their eyes don't tear up. They don't gasp for breath.

Jad Abumrad:                          Like really relaxed. Wasn't just that they were tolerating the pain, it actually seemed like they weren't –

Melanie Thernstrom:              In pain.

Jad Abumrad:                          At all.

Melanie Thernstrom:              And I would think, "Okay, this person here has a skewer in his mouth. I’m in pain? This is pathetic." You know, you can't become a religious Hindu in order to experience this analgesic kind of it, that's cheating. But I did feel like, "Okay, so one way to describe it is faith. For every way that you can describe in religious terms, there's also a way you can describe things in scientific terms."

Sean Mackey:                          Yeah. The reality is all of our pain is in our head.

Jad Abumrad:                          Which brings us to this guy. This is Sean Mackey.

Sean Mackey:                          Chief of the Stanford Pain Management Division.

Jad Abumrad:                          He will tell you that one of the most basic facts about pain is that it is not purely physical.

Sean Mackey:                          We've got signals coming up from the body that are sending us a message.

Jad Abumrad:                          Like if you whack a toe, the signal shoots up some nerves in your leg, into your spine.

Sean Mackey:                          And those signals converge in our brain.

Jad Abumrad:                          Before you even feel a thing –

Sean Mackey:                          There are multitude of what I refer to as little amplifiers throughout our brain that turn up and turn down the overall pain experience.

Jad Abumrad:                          These amplifiers are things like your mood.

Sean Mackey:                          Anxiety, depression.

Jad Abumrad:                          Attention.

Sean Mackey:                          Expectations.

Jad Abumrad:                          All of these things feed back onto that signal coming up from the body. They can either boost it up, up, up, up, past a certain point where you get a sensation of pain, or they can deaden it down, down, down, down, down, down, down, to where you don't feel anything at all.

Rober Krulwich:                      Huh.

Jad AbumradL                          Point is pain is a conversation between the brain and the body. Sean thought, "What would happen if I actually let people see that conversation?" Could they, you know…

Sean Mackey:                          Take control of it.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yes.

Jad Abumrad:                          So he did a study and Melanie signed up.

Melanie Thernstrom:               Mm-hmm.

Robert Krulwich:                     So, describe what happens in this experiment.

Melanie Thernstrom:              You’re put in this MRI machine.

Sean Mackey:                          We put somebody into a scanner.

Jad Abumrad:                          A brain scanner.

Melanie Thernstrom:              And you have a screen in front of you.

Jad Abumrad:                          What you see on the screen is something that normally only the researchers would see. You see your own brain in real time.

Robert Krulwich:                     Yeah. Well, you're not seeing the whole thing. You're just seeing one piece.

Sean Mackey:                          Called the anterior cingulate cortex.

Melanie Thernstrom:              There are many parts of the brain that respond to pain, but that's the one that –

Sean Mackey:                          It's an area that has been shown to be involved with pain perception, turning pain up and down.

Melanie Thernstrom:              It's thought to give pain its emotional valence, its negativity.

Jad Abumrad:                          And do you actually see an image of this little piece of your brain, right there in front of you o the screen? Are you looking at your brain?

Melanie Thernstrom:              No, no.

Sean Mackey:                          That's confusing to everybody. Instead, we give a visual metaphor.

Melanie Thernstrom:              You see an image of –

Sean Mackey:                          Fire –

Melanie Thernstrom:              Flames.

Sean Mackey:                          ...in an ice cave. It is kind of a cartoon flame, but it looks realistic.

Robert Krulwich:                     So are these flickering flames, do they leap into this... do they leap?

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yes. They leap. The more activation there is in that region, the higher the flames go.

Jad Abumrad:                          So, Melanie is lying in the scanner, watching her own pain flames. Sean gives her a set of instructions.

Sean Mackey:                          We say, "Okay. We want you to imagine that you're sitting in a nice, warm, soothing jacuzzi."

Melanie Thernstrom:              This burning is a warm bath, this burning is very relaxing. I'm relaxing into it.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah. But pretty soon, it was like, "Hot. It's kind of hot. It's scalding me. I have to get out." Before she knew it, the flames were –

Melanie Thernstrom:              Growing.

Robert Krulwich:                     So, Sean said, "Okay. Okay." How about you're lying on a beautiful beach?

Jad Abumrad:                          Yes.

Melanie Thernstrom:              This burning is a pleasant suntan.

Sean Mackey:                          And the sand is nice and warm and pleasant.

Melanie Thernstrom:              I’m gonna look so good in my new bathing suit if I just keep getting burnt like this.

Jad Abumrad:                          Yeah, sunburn, hot. All right –

Melanie Thernstrom:              Then the flames would kinda go crazy.

Jad Abumrad:                          Her thoughts keep slipping out of her control.

Melanie Thernstrom:              If –

Jad Abumrad:                          Every time she would see those flames rise, she would think, "Oh, no, the flames were rising, which would make them rise even more," and then more and more until she had this bonfire on the screen.

Melanie Thernstrom:              You're immediately struck by – they look like the flames where you're burned at the stake. I've been reading a lot of lives of saints at that point.

Robert Krulwich:                     Then Melanie had an idea. She said, "Why don't I take this negative image and flip it?"

Melanie Thernstrom:              Then I started trying to move into the idea of being a saint or a martyr. That I believed that I would have no pain and that I was protected by my faith.

Jad Abumrad:                          As Melanie started thinking about this, she could see the flames –

Melanie Thernstrom:              Dying down.

Jad Abumrad:                          Just a little bit.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Which is odd because this isn't... you don't know me, but this isn't actually part of my fantasy life.

Jad Abumrad:                          But she thought, "Okay, I'll try this."

Melanie Thernstrom:              Let me keep going in that kind of feeling. So I was trying to pick one of the few prayers I knew. I mean, I didn't... I'm half Jewish and half Christian. So I was not settled in onto what kind of martyr I was. I started thinking, "Shouldn't I really be a Jewish martyr since if you're half Jewish, your mother is Jewish. It's the right side. Really I'm Jewish more than Christian." Then I started thinking about Jewish martyrs and what prayers did they say.

Jad Abumrad:                          As she added and revised details –

Melanie Thernstrom:              That continued to make the flames go down. Okay. I'm in the right brain state. Let me do more of that.

Jad Abumrad:                          So, Melanie finally decided, "Okay. I'm gonna be this one particular Jewish martyr. His name is Akiba ben Yosef." He was burned at the stake by the Romans for teaching the Torah. There's a particular legend that just as the executioner is about to set fire to the logs right underneath his feet, Akiba stared the executioner in the eyes and smiled. The executioner was like, "Why are you smiling? You're about to be burned alive." And Akiba said, "All my life, when I said those words, you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, I was sad because I thought when shall I be able to fulfill that command? Now that I'm giving my life and my resolution remains firm, why shouldn't I smile?"

Robert Krulwich:                     And by the time Melanie had this fantasy built up in her mind, she looked over at the flames, and she noticed they were almost gone.

Melanie Thernstrom:              Like zero, you know, zero pain.

Jad Abumrad:                          For the first time, she'd taken control of it.

Melanie Thernstrom:              I felt like, "Wow! I am watching my brain thinking my thoughts. And I am changing my thoughts by thinking and watching myself do this."

Jad Abumrad:                          So you were looking at yourself, looking at yourself, looking at yourself, looking at yourself?

Melanie Thernstrom:              Yes!

Sean Mackey:                          It's like peering inside and seeing the ghost in the machine.

Melanie Thernstrom:              I felt, you know, like someone taking their first step on the moon, like I am watching my brain thinking my thoughts. And I am thinking my thoughts, changing my thoughts by thinking and watching my thoughts, watching my brain, changing my thoughts by thinking and watching myself do this.

Robert Krulwich:                     Well, I need to establish this, that once you were... did your two sessions, and you're in between exercises, without all these gizmos, could you address your pain better?

Melanie Thernstrom:              No. Like you think, "Well, okay. Can't you just get the feedback from your own body?" But somehow, this sensation isn't quite direct enough that I think that you could do it without the visual feedback.

Jad Abumrad:                          But for that moment, in that machine?

Melanie Thernstrom:              It was, um, power.

Jad Abumrad:                          Before we go, a very special thanks to our singers who joined us this hour from the New Music Ensemble at LaGuardia High School. They are…

Speaker 16:                             Kelly Ethemeu

Speaker 18:                             Julian Sotto.

Speaker 34:                             Eli Greenhoe.

Speaker 37:                             Julia Egan.

Speaker 38:                             Ruby Frume.

Jad Abumrad:                          Those guys wrote and performed all the music between the pieces. You guys rock. And thanks to the guy who teaches them and who organized this, Mr. Robert Apostle.


Speaker 18:                             Stop!

Robert Krulwich:                     And let's begin.