Radiolab believes your ears are a portal to another world. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience. Big questions are investigated, tinkered with, and encouraged to grow.


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Wednesday, May 28, 2014 Permalink

Radiolab: Black Box


From the darkest parts of metamorphosis, to a sixty year-old secret among magicians, to the nature of consciousness itself, we confront the stubborn gaps in our understanding.

Decoding The Void

In the days before anesthesia, surgery was about the worst ordeal you could endure. Patrick Purdon, Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, gives producer Tim Howard a tour of Mass General Hospital’s famous Ether Dome, an operating theater that would have resonated with the screams of patients on a daily basis in the early 1800s. WriterJulie Fenster introduces us to a con artist-turned-dentist named William Morton, the man who would become famous in 1846 (if undeservedly, as contemporaries would claim) for the discovery of painless surgery.

With the discovery of anesthesia, however, came a strange new problem: nobody was quite sure what was happening when the brain slipped from consciousness into this new, drugged state. We meet Carl Zimmer, whose own experience with anesthesia leads him to wonder how it’s possible that time seems to simply disappear when you go under. What happens in that invisible moment? And why is it that some patients remain conscious, even when they appear to be knocked out?

Patrick Purdon tries to answer this question in an experiment that takes the induction of anesthesia and slows it down to a crawl while analyzing the brain’s electrical activity. With the help of his colleague Emery Brown, Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, Patrick explains the strange electrical signature they discovered, and why it just may be that sought-after indicator of when a brain is truly, totally, definitely unconscious.


You Are The Judge

As a young man, producer Jesse Cox learned that his grandparents, Sydney and Lesley Piddington, had been enormously popular radio performers of the 1950’s. They were mentalists, wowing listeners with their uncanny ability to read each other’s minds. Sixty years later, a question remains: how did they do it? No matter how much Jesse asks his grandmother, his father, even other magicians, he can’t seem to find the answer. And soon another question presents itself: should he, should we open that black box and look inside, if that means losing the magic?

Goo and You

On a quiet, warm summer day, somewhere in the soil beneath your feet, tucked into a nearby plant, or at the edges of a pond, a tiny little cataclysm is happening: an insect is transforming, undergoing metamorphosis. The chrysalis is easily nature’s best known black box, but it turns out, it’s one of the least understood, and most complicated: when producer Molly Webster peers inside a pupa, she witnesses some of the most complex biology happening on earth...and catches sight of an ancient question of change.

Special thanks to Lynn Riddiford, over at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and to Father James Martin, S.J., editor at large for America magazine.