Bag O' Worms & The Velocity Of Poop
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stay seated. Three, two, one, ignition.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get ready for an adventure of magnificent proportions.
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THE POP UPS: (Singing) I don't know what you've been told, but we're in a golden age - so many discoveries that are jumping off the page. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: With Guy and Mindy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're on our way, Houston.
MINDY THOMAS, HOST:
(Singing) Good morning. Good morning to you and you and you and you. Good morning. Guy Raz, good morning.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Mindy, what on earth are you doing with all those plastic bags?
THOMAS: Oh, this? I'm just whipping up a little breakfast for Welda here. Right, Welda?
THOMAS: Oh, haven't I introduced you yet? Guy Raz, Welda is my new pet wax worm. Isn't that right, Welda? Guy Raz, hand me the salt over there.
RAZ: Mindy, I've seen you do a lot of weird things during the course of our friendship. But mixing up a bowl of grocery bags has got to be the...
THOMAS: Oh, look. She's eating it. Take another bite, Welda. Take another bite. You love those grocery bags. Yes, you do.
RAZ: What the...
THOMAS: I have to feed her with a spoon because she doesn't have hands. Take another bite. This is her favorite food.
RAZ: Wow. It's working. You're actually feeding that wax worm a grocery bag.
THOMAS: She can't get enough of them.
RAZ: Mindy, I was always under the assumption that wax worms fed on honey or beeswax. Are you sure you should be feeding it grocery bags?
THOMAS: Guy Raz, she's my pet. And we've lived together for six hours. Do I not look like I know what I'm doing?
RAZ: Well, I just...
THOMAS: Let me tell you a story.
THOMAS: It started in Spain with a scientist named Federica Bertocchini. She's part of the Spanish National Research Council. And one day, she was just minding her own beeswax - literally - when she noticed a bunch of wax worms living in her beehives.
RAZ: And, just to be clear, what makes a wax worm different from other types of worms? Because Welda here looks more like just a regular, white caterpillar to me.
THOMAS: Well, that's because she is a caterpillar. Wax worms are the larvae of wax moths - AKA bee moths.
RAZ: And by larvae, you mean that the stage before metamorphosis or the transformation from wax worm to, I guess, wax moth.
THOMAS: Yeah. And lots of creatures go through metamorphosis. Caterpillars turn into butterflies. Tadpoles turn into frogs. Maggots turn into regular flies. And hamsters turn into rabbits.
RAZ: What the...
THOMAS: Making sure you're paying attention.
RAZ: You know, Mindy, all this talk about caterpillars and butterflies reminds me of a picture book that I loved to read called "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle. Do you know that book?
THOMAS: Oh, yeah. I love that book. But in that, the very hungry caterpillar eats fruit and cake and sausage. My caterpillar - or wax worm, if you will - is way more civilized. She wears clothes and eats grocery bags.
RAZ: Yeah. Let's get back to that. How did this scientist - what did you say her name was?
THOMAS: Federica Bertocchini.
RAZ: How did Federica find this out?
THOMAS: Well, like I said, she was cleaning the wax worms out of her beehive like nobody's business, plucking them out and putting them in a plastic grocery bag, maybe to use as, like, fish bait for later. And, anyway, when she went back to the worm bag a little while later, she found it full of holes.
RAZ: Wow. So the wax worms had eaten their way out?
THOMAS: You know it. And so, being the savvy scientist she is, Federica decided to take this clue and explore it further.
RAZ: How so?
THOMAS: Well, first, knowing that three heads are better than one, she brought this discovery to some scientist pals at the University of Cambridge in England. Their names are Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe.
RAZ: And what did they do?
THOMAS: Well, they did some experiments and discovered a special protein in the wax worm's belly that attacks the chemicals that make up the plastic in the bag.
RAZ: Wow. That sounds very similar to the way that the acid in our stomachs work to break up the food that we eat.
THOMAS: Yeah, exactly.
RAZ: I think I might be starting to see where this is going, Mindy.
THOMAS: Oh, yeah?
RAZ: Well, as we know, plastic bags are not good for the Earth, right?
RAZ: And I think I read recently that there are a trillion of these bags used every year.
THOMAS: Yeah - which, according to my calculations, is about 2 million grocery bags used every single minute. Crazy, right?
RAZ: Yeah, really crazy. And like the plastic water bottles that we were talking about on another episode, plastic bags probably take a lot of energy to make.
THOMAS: Yeah. Apparently, the amount of energy it takes to make 12 of these bags is enough to drive a car for a mile.
RAZ: It's too bad we can't power cars on grocery bags.
THOMAS: I know. And it turns out there isn't much we can do with them. And that includes recycling.
RAZ: Yeah. I know that there are some plastics that we can recycle. But the plastic in grocery bags isn't one of them.
THOMAS: That's because they're made out of a plastic called polyethylene. And it's really hard to break down, especially when we humans are producing 8 million tons of it every year.
RAZ: But it seems like what you're saying is that these scientists discovered an enzyme - or a little teeny tiny microscopic, baby protein - inside the wax worm's belly that can break it down?
THOMAS: Just like your mom did on the dance floor of your senior prom, Guy Raz.
Go, Guy's mom. Break it down now. It's your birthday. Break it down now. Go, Guy's mom.
Anywho (ph) - so, yeah, that's what they think they've discovered. Basically, they've come to the conclusion that if wax worms eat the bags, their bellies will break down the stubborn polyethylene and turn it into another useful type of liquid used to make things like polyester fabric or even antifreeze for your car. And that liquid is called ethylene glycol, which, coincidentally, was what my parents almost named me.
RAZ: That would be a mouthful.
THOMAS: Speaking of mouthfuls, check out Welda over there going to town on that bag.
RAZ: Now, that's a very hungry caterpillar.
THOMAS: Yeah. And I know what you're thinking, Guy Raz. And I need you to calm down because before you get all excited, thinking that you can just start going all around town, using and tossing all of your grocery bags like they're going out of style because wax worms like Welda here will eat them...
THOMAS: ...Just know that this theory is still being tested. And it has a long way to go before it can be proven. But it's still pretty exciting to think how just a little curiosity as basic as paying extra attention to worm holes in a grocery bag could possibly lead to fixing a huge problem right here on our planet.
RAZ: I can't hardly wait until this thing becomes a reality, Mindy.
THOMAS: Me neither. In the meantime, Guy Raz, I'm just going to climb into this grocery bag here feet-first.
RAZ: What the...
THOMAS: And then all I need you to do is pick it up by the handles and then take me to the store because my legs are too tired to walk. Thank you.
Hi. What's your name?
AMELIA: Hi. I'm Amelia, and I'm 5 years old.
BIRDIE: Hi. I'm Birdie, and I'm 6 years old.
THOMAS: So do you guys have, like, a big wow in your world?
BIRDIE: My friend Owen was playing basketball. And it hit his tooth, and his tooth fell out.
THOMAS: What about you, Amelia?
AMELIA: Sometimes, I find baby worms. And, sometimes, when I hold worms in my hand, they freak out.
THOMAS: What does a worm sound like when it freaks out?
AMELIA: It doesn't sound - it wiggles around.
THOMAS: I heard that the two of you recently made up a totally wow-worthy story about a worm. Let's hear it.
AMELIA: Once upon a time, there was a worm. And the worm just wanted to sleep every day. And when the worm felt wiggling, it was just humans stepping on the sidewalk. He did not like that feeling. The worm said, I'm going to go somewhere else to sleep. And then he was gone. He didn't want the human to find him.
And when the human came back, he looked and looked and looked. And he could not find the anywhere - anywhere at all. The worm peeped out. Hey, are you my worm? And the worm lied. He shaked (ph) his head. The human said, hey. Why did you lie to me? I did not want you waking me up. So the human listened to him and walked sadly away. That was the end of the worm story.
THOMAS: Thanks, ladies.
AMELIA: You're welcome.
BIRDIE: You're welcome.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: WOW IN THE WORLD will be right back. Grownups, this message is for you.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: That's it. Back to the show.
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THE POP UPS: (Singing) Wow in the world.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Animals, take your starting positions at the gate.
THOMAS: Hey, Guy Raz. Come over here. It looks like there's a race about to happen.
RAZ: Hey, Mindy. Yeah, I'm the official timekeeper.
THOMAS: Wait. Is that an elephant and a tiger at the starting line? What is this?
RAZ: Yeah. Yeah. Can you hold my jacket for a second? I've got to get this stopwatch ready.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: On your mark. Get set. Go. Manure Muffin takes the lead, followed closely behind by Conservation of Fecal Matter. And here comes Uncle Roughy (ph) passing Backswing and Deuces are Wild, following close behind. And I'll Be Your Number Two bringing up the rear.
THOMAS: Guy Raz, they're not moving. And I'm pretty sure that elephant just went poop.
RAZ: Let's see here. Five seconds.
THOMAS: Yeah. So this race didn't appear to actually begin or move anywhere. And, oh, boy, that tiger just pooped. Oh, man. What is happening, Guy Raz? It stinks out here.
RAZ: Oh, no, Mindy. The race went exactly to plan.
THOMAS: What are you talking about? The elephant just stood there and pooped.
RAZ: Yeah, I know. Wasn't that great?
THOMAS: What? Guy Raz, have you gone bonkerballs (ph)? You're standing here on a track with an elephant and a tiger, holding a stopwatch. You've got a sweatband on your head. And neither one of these animals seem interested in running - oh, boy. They just pooped again.
RAZ: Well, who said this was a running race, Mindy?
THOMAS: Then what is happening?
RAZ: Well, I'm trying to recreate an experiment carried out by two researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, David Hu and Patricia Yang.
THOMAS: Right. So let me just make sure I got this straight. You are standing on this running track, holding a stopwatch, watching an elephant and a tiger poop in the name of science?
RAZ: Well, probably not exactly like this, Mindy. But, yeah, these two scientists basically timed how fast certain animals poop.
THOMAS: OK. So you're telling me that two scientists from one of the finest universities in the world timed how fast animals poop? Oh, boy. There they go again. Guy Raz, why would they do that? I wouldn't even do something that crazy.
RAZ: Well, Mindy, it has to do with something called scatomancy or copramancy.
THOMAS: Scata - copra - what?
RAZ: Well, these were methods used by ancient doctors a long, long, long time ago in places like China, ancient Greece and Egypt and Rome.
THOMAS: OK. And this has what to do with animal poop?
RAZ: Well, actually a lot, Mindy. In ancient times, if you were sick, doctors would examine your poop. They would look at the size and the shape and the color and try and figure out if they could identify clues that would help them understand why you were sick.
THOMAS: Hold the phone, Guy Raz. I've got some science business to take care. I'll be right back.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Occupied.
THOMAS: Sorry. I'm back. My science lavatory was occupied. So you're saying, Guy Raz, that we can find out all of that stuff just by examining our poop? Which I would never, ever actually do, by the way.
RAZ: Well, yeah. And, in fact, Mindy, even modern-day doctors sometimes do the same thing because our poop is simply what our body produces from our food after it takes in the vitamins and nutrients from the food.
THOMAS: OK. So let me just make sure I've got this straight. These two researchers, David Hu and Patricia Yang, did this experiment just to find out if these animals were healthy?
RAZ: Well, in this case, not exactly. They were actually more interested in finding out how fast different mammals poop.
THOMAS: Oh, now this is getting interesting.
RAZ: And, Mindy, what they wanted to find out is why poop comes out in different shapes and sizes in different animals, including us humans.
THOMAS: Wow. Yeah, I'm still having trouble wrapping my brain around this one. So what did they do?
RAZ: What they did was they videotaped 34 different mammals at the Atlanta Zoo - so elephants, lions, gorillas, bears. And then they watched videos of the animals pooping.
THOMAS: Ah. Well, I guess science does happen in all kinds of ways. So what did they find out?
RAZ: Well, the first thing they found out was about poop size and the size of the animals. So the bigger the animal...
THOMAS: The bigger the poop?
RAZ: Yes, which sounds kind of obvious, right?
THOMAS: I'd say that's pretty obvious.
RAZ: But here's another interesting thing these scientists observed.
THOMAS: There's more?
RAZ: Yeah. They found out that bigger animals poop faster than smaller animals.
RAZ: So an elephant, for example takes about 5 seconds to poop. But a dog can take up to 20 seconds to poop.
THOMAS: Please tell me they were wearing nose plugs during this experiment.
RAZ: Well, as far as I understand, there were some stinky situations. But...
THOMAS: You said but.
RAZ: But what they found is that most mammals take between 5 and 20 seconds to go poop.
THOMAS: Wow, ok. So this is gross and fascinating. But I have to ask, Guy Raz, why is this even important?
RAZ: I'll get there, Mindy. But before I do that, can you guess why bigger animals poop out faster than smaller ones? Why does an elephant poop faster than a monkey?
THOMAS: Because they're in a bigger hurry. Or maybe their poop's just so heavy it just falls out really fast.
RAZ: Well, actually, the scientists discovered that the bigger the animal, the more likely their poop is covered in a thicker layer of a slippery coating. And the smaller the animal, the thinner the layer of that slippery coating.
THOMAS: So how is this information going to help make the world a better place, Guy Raz?
RAZ: Aha. Well, as you know, Mindy, science is about curiosity and discovery. And it doesn't always have to have a point. But in this case, David Hu's research might actually help people and other animals who have trouble going to the bathroom.
THOMAS: Huh. That's interesting.
RAZ: Yeah. This research might lead to new medicines that could make life a little more comfortable for lots of people who have pain when they go to the bathroom. And that could be an incredibly important invention.
THOMAS: Well, this is all starting to sound like a pooper duper idea.
RAZ: And it gets better, Mindy. In 2015, this scientist, David Hu, won a famous award known as the Ig Nobel Prize for another study he wrote about.
THOMAS: He won the Nobel Prize, the most famous prize in all of science? The same prize that Albert Einstein won?
RAZ: Actually, it was the Ig Nobel Prize. It's an award given to a scientist whose research makes people laugh.
THOMAS: I thought science had to be serious. There's laughing allowed in science? OK, wait a minute. So what was the research?
RAZ: Well, he won that award for studying how fast mammals go pee.
THOMAS: Of course he did. So what did he discover?
RAZ: Well, he discovered that, on average, we mammals take about 20 seconds to empty out our bladders, which is where we store our pee inside our bodies.
THOMAS: Oh, check it out. I think that elephant and tiger that you were observing on the race track might be...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Animals in your starting pee-sitions. Who will prove to be No. 1 at number one? On your mark, get set, go, if you know what I mean.
THOMAS: They might be doing that pee experiment on their own.
RAZ: Guess it's time to clean it up.
THOMAS: Would you look at the time? Got to run. Not it.
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THOMAS: Hi. Thanks for calling WOW IN THE WORLD. After the beep, get ready to record.
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ELIAS: Hey, Guy Raz. And I'm including you, too, Mindy. I'm Elias from Montcliar, N.J. If there's a shy person playing "Pokemon Go," the chances are higher for them to have a conversation with someone else who's also "Pokemon Go." And they're not shy. Kablooie (ph). And if you do not have any idea of what I'm talking about, visit Episode 5. Bye.
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BEN: Hi. I'm Ben from Howard County, Md. And my wow for this week is that my family learned how to get solar and wind energy. So we did.
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LILL: Hi. I'm from Lill from Ellicott City. And my wow in the world is that my family has been raising tadpoles. And I learned that when they turn into frogs, they turn from herbivores to carnivores.
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ANNETTE: Hi. My name is Annette from Mulberry, Ind. And my wow in the world is ninjas. They're really sneaky and intelligent. And they go hi-ya.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: End of messages.
THOMAS: Hey. Thanks so much for listening to WOW IN THE WORLD this week.
RAZ: And, parents, if you want to continue the conversation with your kids, we've posted some questions about this episode at our website, wowintheworld.com.
THOMAS: And while you're there, you can find links to some of the sources we used to tell our stories this week.
RAZ: Also, we love hearing from you. You can write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THOMAS: Our show is produced by Jed Anderson. Say hello, Jed.
JED ANDERSON, BYLINE: Yello (ph).
RAZ: Our theme song, "Wow In The World" was written and performed by The Pop Ups. Check them out at thepopups.com.
THOMAS: Also, big thanks to the kids you heard in today's episode. Amelia and Birdie, that story was amazing. And we're looking for more kids to take part. For a chance to be featured on an upcoming episode of WOW IN THE WORLD, have your grownups help you share something that's recently wowed you by dialing 1-887-7WOWWOW. Think of it as a wow in your world. Finally, thanks again for subscribing and reviewing and telling your friends about our show. We'll be back with the Thursday edition in just three more sleeps. Until then, go forth and find your own wow in the world.
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THE POP UPS: (Singing) Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world.
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SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey, y'all. Sam Sanders here. These days, I feel like I can't make sense of the news until I've talked it out with my friends. So I made a new show where we do that every week. It's called It's Been A Minute. That's my way of saying let's catch up. Our first episode is out this Friday evening, June 23. Check it out. It's Been A Minute on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks.
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