NPR's Krulwich Solves Science Puzzles Big And Small

NPR's Robert Krulwich has been unraveling complex science questions for years. He's tackled the discovery of laughing gas, nuclear detonations in space, how crows recognize people's faces and why leaves really fall off trees. Krulwich reveals where he comes up with his sometimes off-the-wall story ideas.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

All this week, we've been broadcasting from NPR's New York bureau, mostly focused on the U.N. General Assembly across town, but it's also been an opportunity to check in with my old friend and colleague, Robert Krulwich. He's now a science correspondent for NPR, co-host of the program...

ROBERT KRULWICH: The last time you looked, I was an economics correspondent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're right, yeah. I mean...

KRULWICH: And soon I'll be covering, I don't know, possums - foreign policy.

CONAN: Yeah.

KRULWICH: Oh, could be.

CONAN: He also co-hosts the program RADIOLAB. Over the past few months, you may have heard his stories on the billions of bugs in the air over your head, why and how time seems to slow in the middle of life-threatening events, and how individual crows can recognize individual people, but even crow experts cannot pick out individual crows. Clearly, this is a person who needs help.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Your help. If you have suggestions, things you've really wondered about for Robert to look into, give us a call at 800-989-8255.

KRULWICH: I don't know whether to be insulted by this or to just to, kind of, keeping going with this here.

CONAN: Email: talk@npr.org. I'm just going to finish this intro, Robert.

KRULWICH: Okay.

CONAN: And then you can find links to his recent stories on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And as you heard, Robert is here with us in the bureau.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: I've actually stepped up. See, Neal and I were like roommates or kind of office mates a few years ago. But now...

CONAN: At the old place.

KRULWICH: At the old place. But now I have an office where I can do a rotation in my chair, and I have the most beautiful view of the Empire State Building known to man.

CONAN: Breathtaking.

KRULWICH: Breathtaking.

CONAN: Of course, in the old place, we had beautiful views of Second Avenue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

CONAN: It was a - it was quite a...

KRULWICH: And lots of screaming. Our particular office was located between us and the Israeli embassy and a variety of Palestinian - so downstairs, there was this (makes noise) all the time.

CONAN: All the time.

KRULWICH: People crying out (unintelligible).

CONAN: But also around the corner, from The Daily News Building...

KRULWICH: Yes.

CONAN: ...which, of course, was The Daily Planet Building in all those "Superman" movies...

KRULWICH: Exactly, yes.

CONAN: ...and just one of the most beautiful places ever. (Unintelligible)

KRULWICH: But I think I win, because I think graduating from The Daily News Building to the Empire State Building is a step up (unintelligible).

CONAN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I'm going to give you points for that.

KRULWICH: Okay.

CONAN: In any case, what are you working on, Robert?

KRULWICH: Right now - I was just working on how much does a hurricane weigh. Not everybody's question, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: I got to wondering - see, actually this is where there the Empire State Building comes in. One day, I was looking out the window...

CONAN: Hmm. Why not?

KRULWICH: ...on (unintelligible), and I saw a little white puffy cloud just settling right over the Empire State Building. And then in a perfect demonstration of Benjamin Franklin's discovery years ago, the cloud issued a tiny little (makes noise) of lightning, and the lightning clung to the tip of the Empire State Building for one one-thousand - I think I was the only person who saw it, because I was just looking out the... I was like yes!

CONAN: Good thing a dirigible wasn't moored up there.

KRULWICH: So I got to thinking, you know, how much does that little cloud weigh up there?

CONAN: Wait a minute, clouds? They don't weigh anything.

KRULWICH: Well, technically, that's correct. If you brought a cloud down to a scale, it would float, so it wouldn't weigh a thing. But I thought there might be a way to do this. So I called some guy up at NOAA, the National (makes noise)...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: ...and I said to him, look, how could we figure out - because we know that a cloud and a big cloud and a hurricane carries a lot of water, can we figure out - so this guy that I sat down, we actually figured out that if we squeeze the clouds, which are made of water vapor...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: ...just (makes noise) squeeze the water into a vessel of some kind...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: ...he chose an elephant-sized vessel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: ...because he believed - well, you know the elephant weighs four tons. So we just imagined a jar of water the size of an elephant.

CONAN: Go on.

KRULWICH: I said, how many jars of water are in that little cloud? He said, about 100 elephant weights.

CONAN: What?

KRULWICH: No. It would fall down, wouldn't it? And he said, actually, there are some puffy clouds that would hang above the Empire State Building that might literally weigh more than the Empire State Building. This amazed me. And so I spent the next few days just working over this story.

CONAN: Well, if that's a puffy little white, you know, Rene Magritte cloud over the Empire State Building...

KRULWICH: Yes.

CONAN: ...a hurricane must be...

KRULWICH: A hurricane is 100 million elephants floating in the skies-worth of water. It's an enormous amount of water. But, you know, sometimes, when you're in the middle of trying to figure out, you say, you know, you're sure about the hundred elephants...

CONAN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: And you do wonder a little bit for your sanity, just occasionally.

CONAN: Just a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I also understand you're working on fast-breaking news on Louis Pasteur.

KRULWICH: I was very interested in Louis - actually, yesterday was Louis Pasteur and the walls of Jericho. So you kind of know that I'm yeah. So in Louis Pasteur's case, I was very intrigued to read that in 1849, Louis Pasteur was sitting around, looking at a jar of basically old grape juice that had gone to vinegar.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: And next to it he had built a molecularly exactly the same bit of juice that he built with his own molecules, but he - he thought he had two identical bits of business in each tube. He then took a light and shined it on the vinegar, which came from the grape, which is a living thing. And the light hit the grape, so it went ka-chong(ph) and went sort of sideways.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: He then pointed the light on the laboratory solution and the light was absorbed completely. Said, gee, I think these things are exactly the same, but there's something about grape juice that makes the light work differently. He thought and he thought - and this is what really smart people can do.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: He tried orange juice. He tried lemon juice. He tried a variety of things that had once been alive, shined light, and the light consistently bounced in a particular direction. When he built those same molecules in the lab - never been alive, just in the lab - the light was totally absorbed. And I don't understand this.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: I don't understand it. He eventually discovered that everything that is alive has a twist in it, that there's something deep in nature called chirality, and that everything that is made - every animal, every plant, every human, everybody...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: ...every bit of lettuce, every bit of spinach, every tuber, every everything, down to (unintelligible) bacteria, everything twists in a particular direction. And he turns to his professor - he was 23 -he said, I think I have just discovered that the universe is asymmetric. So I'm sitting there thinking, what am I doing today?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: So the rest of the day, I tried to figure out if I could knock down the walls of Jericho, which is the other thing I did. So my days are kind of unusual.

CONAN: Those are unusual.

KRULWICH: Yes.

CONAN: Well, we have some people on the line who think they have some suggestions...

KRULWICH: Okay.

CONAN: ...you can work on. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. Let's go to Kevin(ph), and Kevin is with us from Kansas City.

KEVIN (Caller): Yeah. I just recently visited the Kennedy Space Center and I didn't get a chance to ask this question when I was there. Why do they hand off communication when there is a launch from Florida to Houston?

CONAN: Why do they...

KEVIN: That's my question.

KRULWICH: The question is, why do they say - why does - why do the people...

KEVIN: Why is it Houston, we have a problem as opposed to...

CONAN: As opposed to Cape Kennedy, we have a problem. I think that's pretty good.

KRULWICH: LBJ, a very powerful senator from Texas, decided to put the money that people...

CONAN: And the vice president of the United States...

KEVIN: (Technical difficulties)

CONAN: So they put the mission control in Houston along with a lot of other NASA stuff.

KRULWICH: Right.

CONAN: But the launch is handled from the Kennedy Space Center.

KRULWICH: Yes. So...

CONAN: And then after it gets to a certain altitude, they say, switch it to Houston, as your airplane gets switched from New York to Boston.

KRULWICH: The real important thing, though, is that, you know, the 17 jobs to launch the place - or the 1,700 jobs (unintelligible) Florida. But the gajillion(ph), gabillion(ph) jobs to keep the thing up, keep the thing floating, keep the conversation going, land the thing, that's all Texans. So there's a senator who takes care of his own. I think that's probably the answer.

CONAN: Alexander would like to know about the international space elevator. It's fascinating. I even wrote a song about it. I hope you use my song in your report. Here's a quick intro to the whole - and he sent you a link to his song. And thanks...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: International space elevator.

KRULWICH: I do find the space - first of all, there's something a little odd about getting in the elevator and going up 20 miles and then stopping. What do you do when you get to the top?

CONAN: I don't know.

KRULWICH: You're not allowed out, obviously. Maybe there's like a lobby up there, like a sky lobby? I mean, they haven't built it yet. (Unintelligible) make me a little nervous...

CONAN: Didn't it nearly fall down in the '80s?

KRULWICH: I would think that if you have a little bulbish(ph) kind of thing on the top of the elevator shaft that you might be a little worried that it would topple. I'm not going to be the first to get on the space elevator.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You'll be the second.

KRULWICH: I think I'll be the second.

CONAN: David(ph) is on the line from Las Vegas.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, hello, Robert. I really like your program, RADIOLAB.

KRULWICH: Thank you.

DAVID: It's one of the best shows on radio. No offense to TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: Another one of the best shows on radio.

KRULWICH: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: I read an article in (unintelligible) Times about how these University of Utah researchers put a bunch of electrodes on people's heads and were actually able to read their minds, asked the subjects to think of a question (unintelligible) language. And it got me - you know, they want to put it to stroke victims and other people who couldn't otherwise communicate. There's all kinds of stories there about how you can communicate nonverbally.

KRULWICH: Yeah. I'd be a little careful about those things. So when you put electrodes on people's heads, you do get to see something. You get to see the electricity running through their heads. I guess that's reading people's minds. But if you heard that my head went (makes noise), you don't know whether I'm thinking I love a mouse, who is that woman I saw in the subway. You don't know what I'm thinking. You just know that I'm thinking.

CONAN: Yeah.

DAVID: Well, they compared the accuracy of it. They had about an 80 percent accuracy rate, if I can remember the article correctly, depending on the number of electrodes that you use, how this scientific experiment was set up. I'd like to know more about that.

KRULWICH: I'd like you to. There is a wonderfully, wonderfully cool thing that some guys at Harvard invented, which they all a brainbow. And what it is, is it notices, just as you said, that when people think, little electrical charges go off in their heads. And they decided to track them. Kind of like it were horseracing. You're just (unintelligible) watching a particular horse. So they paint - the pulses that go through your head, they connect them and make them blue and aquamarine and violet and pink and red. And you can sit and look at a person thinking. And you see this wonderful blur of color shooting blues, then greens, then aquamarine, and you have no idea what they're thinking.

CONAN: What they're thinking. But it looks very pretty.

KRULWICH: Yeah, very pretty. And I think one of the great tasks for neuroscience, going forward, is to look at things like people thinking and then try to figure out how and what they're thinking. But they are a long way from that.

CONAN: Well...

DAVID: You know, you could use it as a diagnostic tool if you could, you know, see different energies, have different...

KRULWICH: Yes, you could.

DAVID: ...illnesses, different colors like that.

CONAN: Aren't they using like PET scans and the various kind of brain scans to say, all right, if I prick you here on the arm and we'll look at the part of the brain that says ow?

KRULWICH: (Unintelligible) actually - but to take the caller's thought seriously, there is indeed a bunch of people who think that if you look at a schizophrenic or you look at someone who's depressed, you look at someone who's in great emotional difficulty, they may be able to read those difficulties as flavors on a graph.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: So somebody who's purple to green (makes noise) would be, you know, depressed. Someone who's this and that would be schiz - and you could then measure whether a pill makes you better, or a doctor who talks to you makes you better, or this or that makes you better. You could begin to compare and contrast treatments and do exactly the diagnostic thing that he's talking about. But it's, again, real early in the game...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: ...because the brain is a very complex thing, and it's doing a whole lot all at once, because it's almost a universe in your head. So it's really hard to map the universe.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email, following up almost exactly on that point. Carrie(ph) in Ann Arbor: I would like Robert Krulwich to investigate how we can tell when someone is looking at us even when we cannot see them, but you can feel someone's eyes on the back of your head.

KRULWICH: That's every third grade teacher who's really good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And your mother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: They've already been invented, that particular person.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Ellen(ph), Ellen with us from Oakland.

ALEC(ph) (Caller): Oh, the name is Alec(ph).

CONAN: Oh, Alec, excuse me.

ALEC: Sorry.

CONAN: Having terrible problems (unintelligible)

KRULWICH: Hey, you'd make a great Ellen, anyway. We kind of sense that.

CONAN: (Unintelligible)

ALEC: My question would be, can you please explore the idea of self-assembling molecules as the basis of life? You know, if you put certain chemicals together, they automatically - just naturally, their nature is to form certain molecules.

KRULWICH: Yeah.

ALEC: And this applies not only to organic molecules but also to inorganic - some inorganic substances.

KRULWICH: Yeah.

ALEC: And as a basis of life, this basic natural tendency to come together to form what you could say would be precursors of small organisms I think would be a fascinating thing to...

KRULWICH: I think...

ALEC: ...to discover.

KRULWICH: ...what you're describing may turn out to be the biggest question of the 21st century. In the 20th century, very clever people figured out what the building blocks of things are. Like, what's - we know there are atoms, now we know there are in-atoms(ph) there are quarks and colored quarks and protons and neutrons. And you know that inheritance moves through a particular molecule called the DNA molecule. And people found, you know, that the individual bottom-of-the-barrel stuff - and maybe one day they'll find that everything is made of string.

So a whole 100 years was spent exploring what things are made of. But this century, just like you just said, may turn out to be the century where we ask: How does Humpty Dumpty get put back together again? Why did it take two billion years for the living things, which were one cell big, they just sat there being one cell, sat being one cell...

CONAN: Very happy.

KRULWICH: Happy as a - and then like so much times goes by and none of them thought, let's do it together, let's make a couple. And then all of a sudden, for some reason, you get multi cells. What happened that day? I, you know, as in why - where did sex come from and where did death come from? Those original critters didn't die. They just split in half and went on and split in half, went on. So there are important changes in the way things assemble and disassemble that nobody understands. One of the great challenges of the 21st century is to try to figure that stuff out.

CONAN: Here's an email from Marjorie(ph) in Baltimore: We are being invaded by stinkbugs. They look like little bugs in Japanese armor. The entire city of Baltimore is being attacked, no kidding. It's like a plague has descended. They don't do anything except stink if you squish them. Where are they from? When will they go away? What can we do?

KRULWICH: Their name Harriet Biederman(ph). She lives at 55 Bouday(ph) Boulevard, somewhere just in Towson, I think. And you should just go and shoot her, I think.

CONAN: That's the source of the attack.

KRULWICH: The source of the attack.

CONAN: Okay, right. Please tell Robert, writes Jim(ph), please tell Robert if the science gig doesn't work out, he should try out to be Garrison Keillor's next sound effects guy on PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. His sound effects are almost as captivating as his stories.

KRULWICH: You know, Neal and I, we used to do - I would often have Neal come and help me with the sound effects. This is like a secret (unintelligible) shouldn't say.

CONAN: Me and Deborah Amos were Mr. and Mrs. Voice.

KRULWICH: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: You don't want to know that now you're...

CONAN: Big, big star, right. Deborah Amos is a distinguished foreign correspondent.

KRULWICH: Foreign correspondent, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Robert, we can look forward to finding out the weight of a hurricane next week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED?

KRULWICH: Yes, you can. And not only in radio form but in cartoon form too. We're working double, multiple media platforms next week.

CONAN: Good Lord. And RADIOLAB?

KRULWICH: RADIOLAB goes on, as always. I'm actually going to Oslo to meet the - for some reason, Norwegian RADIOLAB fans who we didn't realize existed. So there you go.

CONAN: I think they're Danish - no, you're right.

KRULWICH: Yeah. I'm going to meet Danish ones too.

CONAN: All right. All right. Robert, thank you very much.

KRULWICH: I don't think you should consider Norwegians are secretly Danish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: That's a whole 'nother thing. Maybe that's what they do at breakfast.

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