Most of us have been waiting for this episode for two weeks. Radiolab’s most recent effort, “Oliver Sacks’ Table of Elements,” 1 served as a kind of trailer for this week’s “Elements.” I grew up eating off a periodic table of elements placemat, so you could say I’ve been waiting for this episode since basically forever.
With 118 known elements in the universe, Radiolab had to pick and choose. Rather than assault listeners with an elemental onslaught spanning from Hydrogen to Californium, Jad and Robert tell four stories. Three focus on a particular element, while the fourth talks super novae and the creation of elements. “Elements” does, however, give us a taste of the breadth and variety of the periodic table. Poems and songs inspired by various elements pepper the episode. “Shelium,” a feminist take on the second element in the periodic table, is the episode’s big winner: “If there was shelium, how fine, wise, light she would be.”
Still, the four major stories are the focus of the episode. The first story centers around a woman, Jamie, and her experience with lithium—the lightest metal in the universe. Jamie, we learn, takes lithium to treat her bipolar disorder. It’s a compelling story with plenty of built-in tension and feeling, but Jamie’s emotional attachment to her medicine is striking. There is something powerful about Lithium simply because it is an element. Jad, Robert, and producer Soren Wheeler find the thin cord between a human and her building blocks and strum it. The resulting note is powerful.
The second story takes a step back to explain where the elements come from. This segment is right in Radiolab‘s wheelhouse. As one of Audiologue’s resident geniuses 2 recently pointed out, Radiolab excels when explaining scientific ideas. This segment is no exception. As the story winds down, Jad chimes in, “I feel like an idiot, but I think I get it for the very first time.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
“Elements'” third act begins with a question I had never considered but now desperately want to answer: “how old is the northwest corner of my kidney?” The answer lies with C-14, an isotope of carbon. 3 Detonations of atomic bombs released tons of C-14 into the air. That air, in turn, got into humans. It turns out that we can date our cells by matching the C-14 levels in our bodies to years with the same levels of C-14 in the atmosphere. Here we learn which cells regenerate in a matter of weeks and which ones stay with us for our entire lives.
Finally, Radiolab visits “the quietest place in the universe.” This distinction goes to a retired mine in South Dakota. The mine is now a research facility where scientists are trying to get Xenon and dark matter to react. The problem with dark matter is it’s not very reactive. Even worse, it’s next to impossible to detect a reaction on the earth’s surface where cosmic rays surround us. 7,000 feet below the earth’s surface, however, there is no cosmic radiation. There is no noise. Producers Andy Mills and Damiano Marchetti’s trip to the center of the earth is eerie, albeit fruitless.
In “Elements,” the show seems to actively meditate on the power of sound. The producers draw attention to the show’s rich sound design with an anticlimactic, human-generated big bang sound. The episode’s sound design beautifully illustrates each story. Take special note of the buzzing neurons in Jamie’s story and the cosmic ray sound effects in the piece on dark matter. The way that Radiolab uses a musical tone to match the C-14 levels in humans and the atmosphere is simply genius.
Most of all, the show’s visit to the South Dakota mine seems to consciously consider audio. This story isn’t really about elements, it’s about silence and noise. The show’s close is experimental–the last sounds are those of the loud, present silence of the earth, 1.5 miles below the surface.
It is only as a “show about curiosity” that the episode comes up short. “Oliver Sacks’ Periodic Table” left us with this thought: “Is the periodic table a discovery or an invention?” I was excited to know, but Radiolab never got around to answering its own question. Maybe it’s because they’re so damn good at explaining stuff that I wish they had done what only Radiolab can do. This episode wasn’t about elements, it was stories about some elements.
And that’s fine too, but I wanted more.
- A word about Dr. Oliver Sacks: He passed away on Sunday at the age of 82. He was a frequent guest on Radiolab and many of you, like me, may have first encountered him through the show. He was unendingly eccentric and undeniably British. He had a beautiful mind—not because of his considerable neurological insights, but because of his sheer love of learning. Oliver Sacks best embodies Radiolab’s commitment to curiosity. Jad and Robert re-released the show’s last conversation with him on Monday. You should listen to it. For more Oliver Sacks listen here or read his memoir. ^
- Me. ^
- All elements are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. All atoms of a specific element, like hydrogen, have the same number of protons and electrons. These positively and negatively charged particles balance each other out. Every hydrogen atom has one proton and one electron and life is good. Hydrogen atoms don’t have any neutrons, except for when they do. That’s called an isotope: when a particular atom has more or fewer neutrons than is normal for that element. Science is weird sometimes. ^
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