Oh, Radiolab. Let’s never fight again.
Jad & Robert have finally made some amends for their past sins (including, but not limited to, this one, this one, and this one) and produced a marvelous piece of podcastery filled with science, backed by evidence, and, best of all, bucking the claims of conventional wisdom.
Before I continue, check out this spine-tingling video accompaniment to the last episode (possibly, kinda sorta, for about a second NSFW):
The episode is “Desperately Seeking Symmetry,” and it explores the various symmetries of the universe, especially in human interaction and molecular structure.
After a lovely retelling of a Platonic proverb about the human desire for companionship, the program delves into a study by neurologist Lauren Silbert that seeks to figure out the mechanism behind what makes two people “click” — as in, why are there some people who just seem to understand us and who we seem to understand in return? Why do we find conversations with some people mundane while conversations with others are spellbinding, lasting for hours into the night? She told a dramatic story from her teenage years as an fMRI machine recorded images of her brain. She followed this by placing a bunch of subjects in the same machine, which recorded images of their brains as they listened to the story. After some follow-up tests to see how well they could recall the events of the story, she found that the people who remembered it the best had brains whose voxels matched hers the closest during the scan.
The brain of one subject in particular matched up way more closely than anyone else in the study. This made Lauren curious. Who was this person? Isn’t it possible that because their brains matched so well, they would match well as people? She might have just found her soul mate, her best friend, the one person who could understand her better than anyone else! Finally, after some trying, she was able to organize a meeting with this subject. When she found out this subject’s name was Lauren, that was when things got eery.
Here’s where I was reunited with the Radiolab I know and love: Things stopped being eery. They had nothing else in common. It turns out that this girl was just of a temperament that would lead her to become completely engrossed in stories, whether she read a book, watched a movie, or heard a friend’s account of his day. It started to look like it was possible to determine “clickability” between people with a simple brain scan. But you know what? The evidence didn’t support it, and they moved on.
The episode continued in this vein. Whatever they looked at, nothing ended up neat and symmetrical. Through a phenomenon called chirality, all of the molecules in the universe come in mirror images, or “right-handed” and “left-handed” forms. Still, biological life only includes the “left-handed” forms. When you take a molecule and create its mirror image, it can often become deadly, such as in the public health disaster of thalidomide. Then there’s the idea of electrons and positrons, matter and anti-matter — for there to be any matter in the universe at all, there has to be an imbalance or else everything would cancel itself out.
Life isn’t tidy and balanced. In fact, its messiness is the only reason anything exists in the first place.
There’s been much ado about the fancy sound engineering and informal format of Radiolab, but none of that had any impact on why I first fell in love with the program. The thing I adore most about it is the journey of discovery. They begin with a spur-of-the-moment hypothesis: Life must be symmetrical. The human experience is full of predictable patterns. If a prank pulled on the public is big enough, nobody would ever fall for it again. And then through interviews and research and sheer curiosity, they reach a conclusion that often completely negates their original thesis, but ends up being so much more fascinating.
In this episode, Radiolab succeeded. I just hope they continue. The universe is so much more interesting than our wishful thinking could ever make it out to be.
Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.