An Astronaut, a Catalan, and Two Linguists Walk Into a Bar… (Ep. 343)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “An Astronaut, a Catalan, and Two Linguists Walk Into a Bar…” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
In this live episode of “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” we learn why New York has skinny skyscrapers, how to weaponize water, and what astronauts talk about in space. Joining Stephen J. Dubner as co-host is the linguist John McWhorter; Bari Weiss (The New York Times) is the real-time fact-checker.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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The mission of Freakonomics Radio is to tell you things you always thought you knew but didn’t, and things you never thought you wanted to know but do. To that end, we occasionally put on a live show called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, where we invite smart people on stage to tell us stuff. This episode was taped in New York City at Joe’s Pub, part of the amazing Public Theater complex. We’ll soon be taping four more shows there, on October 19 and 20. For tickets or to be on the show, click here. Hope to see you there.
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Stephen DUBNER: Good evening, I’m Stephen Dubner, and this is Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, recorded live tonight at Joe’s Pub in New York City. We have a crowd full of smart people and we’ll bring them onstage to tell us something interesting or unusual, maybe even fascinating. And, if all goes as planned, we will all be a little bit smarter by the time we’re through. Joining me tonight as co-host, I am so pleased to welcome Columbia University professor, author, and podcaster John McWhorter. Hi, John. Let’s see what we know about you so far. You are a linguistics professor at Columbia University.
John MCWHORTER: I try.
DUBNER: You’ve written several books on language, and you host the Lexicon Valley podcast.
MCWHORTER: Which you should listen to.
DUBNER: John, we also know that you produce and play piano for a group cabaret show called New Faces. We know that you wrote a CNN opinion piece that proposed a three-point test to determine which American historical monuments should be considered racist enough to be demolished. And apparently the one thing that gets you a free pass is if you were ever involved in cabaret. Is that right? Or was that my misreading of your piece?
MCWHORTER: No, I think you’re quite right.
DUBNER: John McWhorter, that’s what we know about you. Tell us something we don’t yet know, please.
MCWHORTER: You know what you just don’t know? It’s that every morning I get up and I move to a special chair. And I sit down and I read about dinosaurs. I want to know about what the latest dinosaurs are.
DUBNER: When you say the latest dinosaurs, they’re not coming back, are they?
MCWHORTER: It’s discoveries. I’ve been a dinosaur fan since I was zero, and I still am. I had a dinosaur this morning. I’m gonna have another one in less than 12 hours.
Bari WEISS: What was the dinosaur you had this morning?
MCWHORTER: It was called Castorocauda. It was this early mammal that burrowed around in the water. It was like a beaver that floated in the water. That got me through the day.
DUBNER: Well, John, whatever got you through the day today, I’m glad it did, because it brought you here tonight, and we’re very happy to have you here. So, here’s how the show works: Guests will come onstage to tell us some interesting fact or idea or story on a topic of their choosing. Maybe they’ll put their idea in the form of a question so that we can try to puzzle it out. John, you and I will then ask some questions. And at the end of our show, the live audience will vote for a winner. The vote is based on three simple criteria. No. 1: Did they tell us something we truly did not know? No. 2: Was it worth knowing? And No. 3: Was it demonstrably true? To help with that demonstrably true part, would you please welcome our real-time fact-checker, Bari Weiss. Bari is a writer and editor for the New York Times opinion section, having formerly worked at the Wall Street Journal, Tablet, and elsewhere. Bari, if you had not become a journalist, what do you think you’d be doing?
WEISS: The embarrassing answer to that is an aesthetician, which is a fancy word for someone that likes to pop pimples. I’ve actually had to prevent myself from lunging at strangers in the Subway because that’s how much I enjoy that disgusting task. I know John’s going to vomit.
DUBNER: You’re not kidding, are you?
WEISS: No. I mean, a more sophisticated answer would probably be rabbi, but I’ve gotten to do the more fun parts of that, because I’ve officiated four weddings. I think I have a fifth coming my way.
DUBNER: And the parallels between aesthetician and rabbi are what?
WEISS: Relieving pressure? There’s a transitionary aspect to both of them. Right?
DUBNER: Bari, thank you so much. We’re delighted you are here. And it is time now to play Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Would you please welcome our first guest, Jordi Getman-Eraso. Hey, Jordi. Great to see you here. Why don’t you tell us all what you do.
Jordi GETMAN-ERASO: I’m a professor of history at Bronx Community College here at the City University of New York. And I’m a specialist in Spanish modern history.
DUBNER: Very good. I’m ready. So are John McWhorter and Bari Weiss. So, Jordi, what do you know that’s worth knowing that you think we don’t know?
GETMAN-ERASO: So, in Spain, nobody ever sings the national anthem. Do you know why?
DUBNER: Did a Catalonian write it?
GETMAN-ERASO: No. Good guess, though.
MCWHORTER: Is Jordi by any chance a Catalonian name?
GETMAN-ERASO: Yes, it is. It is George or Jorge in Catalan.
MCWHORTER: I knew a Jordi once. I remember I used to say to him, “Else, bonse, amis.” And that meant the good friends. Does it still mean that?
GETMAN-ERASO: It still does, yes.
GETMAN-ERASO: It has not been updated in any fashion.
DUBNER: So, in Spain, nobody sings the national anthem? It’s gotta have something to do with Franco. Cause everything’s got something to do with Franco. Or no?
GETMAN-ERASO: There’s an eventual connection, you could say. But that’s not the main connection.
DUBNER: Does the main connection for the reason pre-date Franco?
GETMAN-ERASO: Yes. Definitely.
DUBNER: Do you want to give us a century on that?
GETMAN-ERASO: 18th century.
DUBNER: Alright, Jordi, I don’t think we’re getting to the proper answer. So why don’t you tell us why nobody ever sings the national anthem in Spain.
GETMAN-ERASO: It’s actually quite simple. There are no lyrics to the anthem.
DUBNER: Oh. That would make it harder, yeah.
MCWHORTER: There’s no “mi bella Espana,” or “bella Espana?”
GETMAN-ERASO: There have been efforts along the way to add lyrics to it by different regimes that have tried to influence the anthem. It started as a royal march. Basically, it was just a military march. And if you listen to it, it actually still kind of sounds that way. I actually brought a clip if you want to listen to it.
DUBNER: Let’s hear it, yeah.
GETMAN-ERASO: [Plays “Marcha Real.”]
DUBNER: So it sounds military. It sounds regal-ish as well. Is that the idea? The king’s out there marching with the troops? But why no words?
GETMAN-ERASO: Well, we can get into the relationship of the different regions of Spain. But it really is centered on the royal family’s lack of interest in having politicians influence the royal march in that manner.
DUBNER: But, let me ask you, is the national anthem played pretty regularly though? At national sporting, political events, and so on?
GETMAN-ERASO: It is, at all sporting events. And it leads to a lot of confusion. Sometimes you’re watching the players just standing there. Other countries are mouthing the anthem, or trying to at least. That’s not a problem with Spanish players. They don’t have to learn any lyrics. They just stand and look up into the stands. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t lyrics added to it.
DUBNER: Oh really?
GETMAN-ERASO: Basically when I was born in Spain, in Barcelona, and when we were kids, at that time, there was a dictatorship in Spain, the Franco dictatorship, and it was a dictatorship that emerged from fascist ideas initially. It was somewhat authoritarian. And so, there were a lot of things that were made illegal. Including, for example, my name, Jordi. Any kind of Catalan, the usage of the Catalan language was made illegal. However, in school, we kids decided that you would sing along with the anthem and make fun of Franco the dictator. You actually make fun of a very specific part of his body.
DUBNER: Could we play it again and have you sing it?
GETMAN-ERASO: Sure, I’ll sing it in Spanish and then I can translate?
DUBNER: That’d be helpful.
GETMAN-ERASO: [SINGS IN SPANISH.]
DUBNER: Great. That’s the anthem as interpreted by the likes of Jordi Getman-Eraso. Could we have that in English now as well?
GETMAN-ERASO: Franco, Franco, who has a white butt, he goes to Paris, it turns grey.
DUBNER: I love that you managed to insult Franco and Paris at the same time there. Now, again, Franco being Franco, I can’t imagine that he didn’t want some official lyrics that might have been perhaps about Franco. Was that not the case?
GETMAN-ERASO: There was a fascist anthem. But that was separate, and it was connected to the movement, so it became very much about the political movement rather than the nation.
MCWHORTER: Jordi, does this have anything to do with the fact that if you look at Iberia, it’s three vertical stripes. And so it’s kind of like there’s Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese. And it’s this divided place, so there isn’t any one language, so it would discourage there being any words from one language. Is that what this is? That that discourages there being anything that everybody could embrace?
GETMAN-ERASO: To a certain extent I would say yes. Spain is a country that is one of the oldest countries in the world. It dates back to the 1400’s. But it was always united by a federative structure, traditionally. It’s only when authoritarian regimes have come along that they attempt to erase that sort of diversity and replace it with an authoritarian imposition of specific language or specific rules or laws.
DUBNER: So, you’re a native-born Catalan. Barcelona, yes?
DUBNER: You, I’m sure, are following the current independence movement. If Catalonia were to secede, become independent, etc., what would you think might be the shape of how its relationship with Spain would emerge, in the near-term at least?
MCWHORTER: Would they be amics? Amics means friends.
GETMAN-ERASO: The very quick answer is no, unfortunately. We live in New York City, and this is a very diverse place, and there’s a sharing that we engage in here. If we move away from New York or we go to other parts of the world, we realize that there’s a lot of built up — sometimes historic, sometimes social, or especially political now — friction that is built up between people that makes them feel like they don’t belong to a group, they don’t belong together. That there is no way to overcome the differences that separate them. So, I think that it would be very difficult.
DUBNER: Bari Weiss, Jordi Getman-Eraso is telling us about why the Spanish national anthem has no lyrics.
WEISS: I can tell you that he has a very authoritative accent, so I believe him. I’ve been thinking more about our own national anthem, given the controversy over the “take a knee” protests. So, everyone knows that Francis Scott Key wrote what would become our national anthem during the war of 1812. He wrote it when he watched Fort McHenry in Maryland being bombarded by the British. But then fast-forward to the Civil War, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who was this polymath poet, he added this fifth stanza, which I recently came across. He wrote it in 1861. And the lyrics are: “When our land is illuminated with liberty’s smile, if a foe from within strike a blow at her glory, down, down with the traitor that dares to defile the flag of her stars and the page of our story.” And it goes on. But the whole thing is about the enemy from within, and I think it’s interesting and wonder if some people will be pushing to bring back that fifth stanza.
DUBNER: Yeah, interesting. Jordi Getman-Eraso, thank you so much for playing. Would you please welcome our next guest, Carol Willis. Carol, what do you do?
Carol WILLIS: I’m an architectural historian, and I’m the founder, director, and curator of the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan.
DUBNER: What do you have to tell us that you think we don’t know?
WILLIS: Well, I have a question: Skyscrapers come in many different sizes in cities everywhere. But what kind of tall building is unique to New York?
MCWHORTER: That’s hard.
WILLIS: Because you didn’t come to the Skyscraper Museum’s exhibition.
MCWHORTER: You smoked it out.
DUBNER: Everybody has tall buildings around the world. There’s some dimension on which New York’s tall buildings are different, you’re saying?
WILLIS: There actually is a new form of skyscraper that has been invented in New York in the last decade and a half.
DUBNER: Are they invisible?
DUBNER: Are they of a category of building that people worry are throwing Central Park into shade.
WILLIS: Yes, they’re that controversial type, which is a specific type.
DUBNER: Well, they’re something beyond very, very, very tall. They’re something beyond that?
WILLIS: Yes, because there’s a very important distinction between big and tall in skyscrapers, right? And how you measure skyscrapers. Like, I think a question that a lot of people think they know the answer to is, “What’s the tallest building in New York?” And maybe your audience, you all know the answer to that one.
DUBNER: Sure, of course we do. Right? The tallest building in New York is not the Freedom Tower.
WILLIS: One World Trade Center as it’s called now.
MCWHORTER: It’s not about how deep it goes into the ground?
DUBNER: Oh, I know what the tallest building is.
DUBNER: It’s new. And it looks like the cardboard box that the Chrysler Building would have come in.
WILLIS: No, actually it doesn’t, because it is specifically different in form. And it would be absolutely impossible for the Chrysler building to fit inside 432 Park Avenue, which is the building you’re talking about.
DUBNER: 432 Park Avenue is the new one.
WEISS: That’s the tallest building.
MCWHORTER: It’s a recent distinction.
WILLIS: Well, the answer is right if you want to use the definition of height that has to do with the highest occupied floor, as opposed to the highest point of the architectural design, because I think most people would answer that One World Trade Center is, at 1,776 feet, the tallest building. Because that’s the official measure.
DUBNER: We still haven’t answered your question though, have we? Your original question.
WILLIS: Well, this is one of the type of this particular new typology of skyscraper, which is different than all the tall buildings that have come before.
MCWHORTER: Is there a single term for it that architects use?
WILLIS: I have a lot of adjectives to describe it. There’s a one-word characteristic of them that is uniform across what’s already about two dozen buildings designed this way.
DUBNER: Does anyone in our audience think they know what it is?
MCWHORTER: By what do we mean, skinny?
DUBNER: By the way, that’s not a very technical term.
WILLIS: Well, slender is the technical term.
DUBNER: Also not technical.
WILLIS: No, no, in fact, it is.
WEISS: You would know that if you went to the Skyscraper Museum, Stephen.
WILLIS: If you speak with structural engineers, a 1-to-7 ratio of the base to the height is officially a slender building, which requires additional engineering. So, 432 Park Avenue, that we’re talking about, is a 1-to-15 ratio. So, if you think of a kid’s ruler, one inch wide and 12 inches tall, add another three inches onto that and that is the silhouette of the building. One World Trade Center is essentially the same height, a little bit shorter. But 432 Park Avenue would fit inside of the core, the elevator section. It’s that different. It has less than a million square feet. One World Trade Center has 3.5 million square feet to it.
DUBNER: So is this trend of skinny buildings a result of scarcity and expensive land? Or is there something else beyond that?
WILLIS: It’s not scarcity of land, it’s the price of land. Right? There are other tall, all-residential buildings, but the category is super-slender, ultra-luxury, in this case, condominium towers. The price of land in New York is extraordinarily expensive per square foot. This unique condition of New York compared to other places is, we have air rights. We have a zoning law that sets a limit on the number of square feet — not height — but square feet that can be built. So if you buy the undeveloped square feet of the buildings next to you and you pile it high up into the sky —
DUBNER: Other cities don’t have that, you’re saying.
WILLIS: No. There are cities that have very tall buildings, especially in China. They have a different formula. There are no residential buildings like that. But in most places where land value is extremely high like London, there’s a height limit.
DUBNER: All of which we would have known had we been to the skyscraper museum.
WILLIS: You would.
DUBNER: But let me ask you this. Was it a fact that people, builders, developers, architects, etcetera, had been wanting to build these slender buildings for a long time because of the expensive land in New York, but only recently, engineering-wise, have been able to?
WILLIS: It’s not so much that the engineering enabled these buildings. But it really was a price point of $3–4,000 dollars a square foot for the sale price of an apartment that had to be hit before the very expensive construction, materials, and the special engineering and all of that that make the construction price so expensive. And once, in about 2003, they hit that price, then it became possible to build these very tall buildings.
MCWHORTER: There was a time when this would have had a better name. You call it “skinny,” “slender.” I mean, if it was 1865, when there was a trend to name things Greekly, or Latinly — so you’d call something aspirin or gasoline or dextrose or something like that — then it would have been some pretty name.
DUBNER: It would have been “skinnyatlas.”
MCWHORTER: Yes, there you go.
DUBNER: I think we’ve all read that one reason Manhattan — I know we didn’t originate the skyscraper, but one reason that we really—
WILLIS: We did.
DUBNER: Oh, we did? It wasn’t Chicago?
WILLIS: Chicago’s claim to fame with the skyscraper is steel skeleton construction, not height. If you want to compare height versus technological definitions, New York wins, because in 1874, we had two buildings that were the tallest in the world.
DUBNER: Which were they?
WILLIS: The Tribune building and the Western Union building.
DUBNER: One thing that we’re trained to know is that New York or Manhattan are particularly receptive because our bedrock is gneiss-y. Right? Very gneiss.
WILLIS: My favorite urban myth that needs to be demolished.
DUBNER: That’s what I want to know. Is it not true?
WILLIS: Even though there is bedrock in Lower Manhattan, and in Midtown — supposedly the bedrock dips down in the village, and people say that’s why there aren’t any skyscrapers in between, which isn’t true. But, nevertheless, a point to illustrate and refute that idea, that you need bedrock, is that the tallest building in the world at the turn of the 20th century was built on wood piles that were sunk down into the wet earth, even though there was bedrock another 40 feet below that. So it just wasn’t economic to go down that far, and it wasn’t necessary.
DUBNER: So the whole gneiss story is just a gneiss story, but it’s not real.
WILLIS: Gneiss is important, and bedrock is a very good way to build very tall buildings to anchor.
DUBNER: Alright, so Bari, Carol Willis, an architectural historian at Columbia and founder and curator of the Skyscraper Museum, has been telling us that New York is a world leader in technically slender buildings. Anything to add or dispute?
WEISS: So, everything that Carol has said is totally accurate. And I would never dispute you.
DUBNER: Thank you so much, Carol. Great job.
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DUBNER: Before we get back to the game, we have some lightning-round-ish questions written especially for John. You ready?
MCWHORTER: I think I’m ready.
DUBNER: Let’s just do a quick this or that round with you, John, okay? English or French?
MCWHORTER: French doesn’t like me because of something I wrote about four years ago where I said that children in the United States should not be taught French because we think of it as a kind of a middle-class class marker, and that really, given that we’re all surrounded by people who are bilingual in English and Spanish, wouldn’t you rather learn a language that people actually speak? And I got all this hate mail. So English or French? I’m sorry, No, I can’t say it.
DUBNER: You can’t vote for English.
MCWHORTER: English is eating up all the world’s languages. And so because I don’t want to say English, although thank God I speak it, French.
DUBNER: Well, as reluctant as that vote was, I can’t wait to hear the answer to this one. French or Russian?
MCWHORTER: Russian. Oh, God, I love Russian to death. Russian is so hard, I don’t believe anybody really speaks it. It’s beautiful. And I also enjoy the literature.
WEISS: Is Russian harder than Hungarian?
MCWHORTER: Russian is infinitely harder than Hungarian. Hungarian is kind of hard. Russian is just bizarre.
DUBNER: If it’s infinitely harder, doesn’t that mean that you can’t learn it?
DUBNER: Here’s a slightly different this or that: “Bigly” or “big league?”
MCWHORTER: “Big league,” because he never said “bigly.” I would like it if he was saying “bigly,” because it would have popularized this new use of “bigly.” And I like it when language changes. These are fun. Is there another one?
DUBNER: I have one more for you, John. So this is a big one: To not split the infinitive, or to split, with no regrets, the damn infinitive?
MCWHORTER: Oh for goodness’ sake, that has just got to go. You can’t split the infinitive. So, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” — how improperly phrased — it should be, “to go boldly where no” — that, no. Somebody just made that up. And that person said, “You can’t split the infinitive because you can’t split an infinitive in Latin, because in Latin the infinitive is one effing word. So you can’t split it because you can’t split a word. It’s like trying to cut a cat in half.” And so this person decided, “Well, you can’t split an infinitive in English, because English is supposed to be like Latin.” He’s dead, and here we are. Just let it go. Split your infinitives and enjoy it, please.
DUBNER: Thank you for that. Let’s get back now to our game. Would you please welcome our next guest, Rob Leonard.
DUBNER: Hi there, Rob, what do you do?
Rob LEONARD: I’m a linguistics professor. I’m also the director of something called the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis, and we have an exoneration project based on the misunderstanding of linguistic evidence that was used to put people away.
DUBNER: Interesting. So I’m guessing there are a lot of things you can tell us we don’t know. Pick your favorite.
LEONARD: As a forensic linguist I often analyze recorded speech to understand how someone might have been wrongly accused of a crime. I’ve seen many cases where someone involved in the case listens to a recording that is part of the evidence, like a wiretap, but makes the wrong judgment about the facts of what happened because one of the speakers was contaminated. What do you think “contamination” means?
DUBNER: Does it have something to do with actual audio quality?
DUBNER: Does it have to do, maybe, with how the person sitting in the courtroom somehow doesn’t match the perception of what the person on the tape sounds like?
LEONARD: Not really. It has to do with the way we normally perceive conversations, because conversations are mutually cooperative things.
DUBNER: So, we know that eyewitness testimony is just garbage, right? We know that human recall tends to be very, very, very poor. So is there some version of that in the auditory—
LEONARD: It’s all sort of involved, but yeah.
DUBNER: So what is contamination?
LEONARD: Okay. Contamination — well, I’ll give you an example. Senator Harrison Williams. This was during Abscam. He was being tried by the Senate. And on the floor of the Senate, they played a recording of him and an undercover F.B.I. agent, okay? Well, the F.B.I. agent cursed nonstop. But the senator never did. But at the end of this tape, one of the other senators came over and said, “Boy, I never knew you cursed so much.”
DUBNER: Oh, he’s intermingling the two voices in his mind.
LEONARD: Exactly. So, we’ve seen this time and time again. We have the story of John DeLorean — you know, with the car, the Back To The Future car — and he was was really desperate to get investment. And at that point, the Feds grabbed a guy who said he could get DeLorean for them. He said, “Yeah, yeah, DeLorean wants to deal massive amounts of drugs.” So, he kept going back to DeLorean, trying to entrap him on the tape, you see. But he never actually discussed the drugs. But, when you just listen to the tape, there’s so much drug talk that the federal prosecutors came away thinking that there was enough to indict and try him. But when they just separated them out, you see, it was very clear that DeLorean never agreed or instigated any of it. We always assume that people who are in conversations are having a conversation. You see?
MCWHORTER: Wow. About the same thing?
DUBNER: So, the moral of the story, really, is to never, ever talk to anyone who’s ever done anything illegal. Bari Weiss, contamination in the context of forensic linguistics — so interesting. What more can you add?
WEISS: Well, I know that it’s hard to imagine the man before you doing anything other than forensic linguistics, but I’ve been Googling him, and it turns out that he is a founding member of the band Sha Na Na.
WEISS: He played at Woodstock.
LEONARD: We opened for Jimi Hendrix.
DUBNER: Did all the other members of Sha Na Na become linguistics professors?
LEONARD: In the original Woodstock movie, we get one song, “At The Hop.” The soloist in the original one is now the provost of Jewish Theological Seminary at Columbia University.
DUBNER: So, we got a two-for-one here. We got the birth of Sha Na Na and the birth of forensic linguistics. Rob Leonard, thank you so much for playing.
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DUBNER: Would you please welcome our next guest, Georgios Pyrgiotakis. Georgios, nice to see you. What do you do?
Georgios PYRGIOTAKIS: So, by training I’m a materials engineer, and I work as a research scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health.
DUBNER: We’ve heard of that, Harvard. So, Georgios, tell us something interesting that you think we don’t know.
PYRGIOTAKIS: So, in my line of work, I work with nanotechnology.
PYRGIOTAKIS: Nanotechnology, which basically is how matter behaves in the nanoscale. And to give you an idea of the nanoscale, it’s about one billionth of a meter. So it’s very, very tiny.
DUBNER: Okay, so you’re trying to understand how matter behaves at the nanoscale?
PYRGIOTAKIS: Yes. They get some very interesting properties, all materials do when you take them down to the nanoscale.
DUBNER: Okay, a very naive question: do scientists like you create things on a nanoscale? Or you’re looking for things that already exist at that scale?
PYRGIOTAKIS: We create at a nanoscale.
DUBNER: Okay, all right. That sounds interesting and deeply challenging to me. So tell us something fascinating about that.
PYRGIOTAKIS: Our research group found a material that we encounter in everyday life, all the time. But, when you take it to the nanoscale, it’s actually a material that can be used to fight bacteria.
DUBNER: So an everyday material that when nano-ized — is there a verb for it?
DUBNER: An everyday material that, when nanosized, can fight bacteria.
MCWHORTER: How do you make it small? Because once you make it small, the issue is, how do you make the molecules stick together? How does that work?
PYRGIOTAKIS: There are different processes to make it small. In our case, we use high voltage to make it small.
MCWHORTER: So, it’s about electricity ions and that sort of thing.
PYRGIOTAKIS: Yes, you’re getting very close to the final product.
MCWHORTER: Okay, that’ll do for me.
WEISS: I’m amazed that you even know how to ask that question.
DUBNER: Wow. An everyday material — paper.
PYRGIOTAKIS: No. It’s liquid. I can help you a little bit.
MCWHORTER: Is it gonna be something like semen?
PYRGIOTAKIS: It’s a major ingredient in pretty much everything that you mentioned so far.
PYRGIOTAKIS: Yes, water.
DUBNER: So, you take water, nanosize it, and it becomes anti-bacterial?
MCWHORTER: Wait, wait. What’s small water? You can’t make the atoms smaller — what do you mean?
PYRGIOTAKIS: No, but you make small droplets of water.
MCWHORTER: And that’s different from what big water would be?
PYRGIOTAKIS: Yes. It’s all part actually of the equation, the size, you make it smaller. It’s also the process you use to make is smaller that has an effect on the water. So, by applying the high voltage, what you basically do is you add a lot of charges on these water droplets, and you also create a lot of ions at the same time.
DUBNER: Is the process itself dangerous?
PYRGIOTAKIS: It does involve high voltage; I’ve been shocked several times. But the current itself is not as high, so you feel a little bit of a weird thing going through your body, but nothing major.
DUBNER: And would the anti-bacterial water be safe to ingest?
PYRGIOTAKIS: Yes. You don’t even feel it. And part of the reason is that these droplets are so small, the total amount that you actually use, it’s in the picogram level. Picogram is below nano. So it’s one trillionth of a gram.
DUBNER: Let me ask you: Georgios, if you took this water spray and sprayed it on John’s face, would he feel it?
PYRGIOTAKIS: No, you won’t feel anything.
MCWHORTER: Because it’s so fine.
DUBNER: All right, so what are the applications that either it’s being used on now, or hopefully will be soon?
PYRGIOTAKIS: So, the applications are basically everywhere you have bacteria — hospitals, public transportation, air. The one that we’re actually focused right now, our research is on fresh fruits and vegetables. Because it was the low-hanging fruit.
DUBNER: I don’t know whether that’s scientist humor or Greek humor, but I like it.
PYRGIOTAKIS: It’s a little bit of both.
DUBNER: And in what ways, or in what dimensions, is this better than the existing anti-bacterial treatment for those kinds of things?
PYRGIOTAKIS: So, to go back to nanotechnology, one of the benefits of nanotechnology is that you can do the same job with a lot less mass. Right? And the example I like to give is a slice of bread and a stick of butter. If you’re gonna cover the slice of bread with butter, you have to use several sticks. But what you typically do is you take a little bit on a knife, and you spread it very thin on the bread, and then with one stick you can cover several slices of bread. Imagine now you spread it nano-thin. You can pretty much cover the entire bread that Manhattan has with one stick of butter, right?
DUBNER: Alright, Bari Weiss, I want you to find out if you could indeed cover Manhattan with one stick of butter.
PYRGIOTAKIS: Not Manhattan. The bread in Manhattan.
DUBNER: Oh, all the bread in Manhattan.
WEISS: Okay, I love mini things. I love tiny houses and dogs, and I follow all these Instagram accounts of people that miniaturize things. But I cannot for the life of me understand nanotechnology, because it’s too small. And let me give you a sense of how small it is. A single strand of human hair is 80,000 nanometers in width. Your fingernail grows by approximately one nanometer every second. So God bless you for operating in this world, this Willy Wonka crazy thing that I do not understand at all.
DUBNER: Georgios, thank you so much for playing. Well, it is time to welcome our final guest tonight. Would you please give a warm hand to Mike Massimino. Give us your thumbnail bio. Tell us a little bit about what you do.
Mike MASSIMINO: I am an astronaut. I got to fly twice on the space shuttle. And on both my missions, I went to the Hubble space telescope and repaired it. And I was also the first person to tweet from space. There you go.
DUBNER: I love that that’s what gets the applause. You fixed the telescope! Before we get to what you want to tell us about, I just have to ask, as we know, many kids dream of being an astronaut. Did you dream of being a normal person?
MASSIMINO: If I did, I failed at that. I’m old enough to remember, unlike, I think, most of the audience, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. So, that made me want to be an astronaut.
MCWHORTER: Mike, I was 4. I saw that on T.V., he’s walking around up there, and I thought, “I like it here, and I’m glad somebody went up there, but damned if I’m gonna go.” What made it attractive to you?
MASSIMINO: Yeah, I think about that. I’m not really sure. But it grabbed my attention. And it stuck with me, and as an adult, I had to make that realization. I could either think about it and read about it in the paper, or watch it on T.V., or I could try to do something about it, and that’s what I did.
MCWHORTER: For me, that’s the dinosaurs. It never lets go of you.
MASSIMINO: That’s what it is. So that’s what happened.
MCWHORTER: When you start on it, is it about physical conditioning? You’re gonna go up there — what do they do to you?
MASSIMINO: You know, the physical conditioning part, even I thought you have to be in really good shape. You want to be in the best shape you can be in. But what they do is they really try to get you prepared to do your job. And so that means getting familiar with what it’s like to work together as a team, what it’s like to go on a spacewalk, how to fly the spacecraft, and everyone has a role. And then there are certain skills and things you have to do — maybe some things that may be difficult for certain people. Like for me, I was not a thrill-seeker. So I had to get comfortable around heights and going fast and stuff like that. Yeah, I’m afraid of heights. I‘m serious. I don’t like heights at all.
DUBNER: So, you did two spacewalks at Hubble. Tell us about how you trained for that. Because it’s a condition that we obviously don’t have here.
MASSIMINO: That is actually my question, which is, how do you go about training for this? There’s nothing to walk on when you step out of the shuttle, or in the space station when you space walk. How do you prepare yourself to do that?
MCWHORTER: It’s either gonna be a waterbed or you’re gonna be in one of those baby bubble tents, those things where you bounce around in there. Bouncy castles.
MASSIMINO: No. We don’t do the bouncy thing. But water’s involved.
MCWHORTER: But it’s too heavy. When you’re up there, it’s not like [makes hand motion] ppppffffft. Is it?
MASSIMINO: That’s right. You’ve actually explained it pretty well. When you’re in water, you’re fighting through the water, and there’s a viscosity of the water and drag associated with it. So, if you’re trying to run in the water, it slows you down a bit. That’s the same thing. And in space, there’s no forces working against you. So, you can move very freely and quickly. When you’re under the water, which is where we do train, you’re a little more stable in the water than you will be in space. Water has gravity still present. If you throw a rock into the water, it’s gonna sink, right? But it also gives you a little bit of buoyancy, some flotation.
So, just like a SCUBA diver will have weights and flotation to try to get what we call neutrally buoyant in the water column, that’s what we do as astronauts in the water. We have divers help us do this. You have weight pulling you down, but you also add floatation.
Now, but you bring up a really good point though, about the drag, which is subtle. Not everyone might think of that. So when you get to space, the first thing you have in every first space walk is 15 minutes of what we call translation adaptation. And what you’re doing is taking that movement that you’ve learned underwater in your space suit, and now going very slowly and trying to adapt yourself to be able to do the movements you want. But if you do the same force in space as you would underwater, you’d go flying. So you want to go really slowly when you first get there.
DUBNER: So, that’s your first 15 minutes. And the space walk lasts how long?
MASSIMINO: We plan for 6 and a half hours. One of mine that was the longest was more than 8 hours of space. So you plan for 6 and a half and you see how it’s going. And if you need to, you stay out longer.
DUBNER: That’s long enough to get hungry, thirsty, and maybe need to use the bathroom. What do you do about those things?
MASSIMINO: Okay, so hungry, you eat a good breakfast. They experimented with food inside of a space suit, it didn’t work very well, because things are floating and you don’t really have a way to grab something and eat it because you’ve got a glove. So, picture that: it’s just your head in a bubble, right? So you can’t — it doesn’t work so good.
DUBNER: But you have to drink, I assume?
MASSIMINO: Water’s very important. You’re moving the whole time. It’s almost like an athletic event when you’re out there moving around. So you have a 32-ounce bag of water, similar to a Camelbak, in front of you, velcroed to the front of your space suit, with a bite valve that you can get to. And if you need to use the —
DUBNER: No. 1 or 2, let’s say.
MASSIMINO: So, No. 2, that’s a bad day. You want to take care of that in the morning. You know, food floating around, so use your imagination with that one. Not good. So you don’t want to do that. No. 1, you probably don’t want to do that either, and you don’t generally have to do that because you’re moving around so much, you sweat, you don’t have as much need to do that as you might think. But we do wear a diaper, so when you put your space suit on, the first thing you put on is a diaper.
MCWHORTER: Nobody ever talks about that.
WEISS: Wait, wait. It’s a standard diaper you get in a grocery store? Or is it a special kind?
MASSIMINO: We don’t call it a diaper, because we’re NASA. So we call it a MAG. Maximum Absorbency Garment. And the other thing they do with us, the people who prepare our stuff, they take a sharpie and they mark on your diaper, “front.” No kidding. And you’re very grateful they do that, because the worst thing you’d want is to find out, “Hey, I must have put my diaper on backwards,” while you’re spacewalking. Other than that, I think it is something you might be able to buy off the shelf.
MCWHORTER: Mike, I have a question: What do you say to each other? What do you say up there? Because there’s nothing to talk about except your diapers when you’re tending to the plants and whatever you’re doing. What is the conversation?
MASSIMINO: We talk about all kinds of things. We look out the window a lot and say, “What is that?”
MCWHORTER: You’re looking at Jupiter or something.
MASSIMINO: You might be looking at Jupiter. But Jupiter will show up not too different than it does in our night sky. You’re not that much closer to it. But it’s much clearer. So, you’ll see amazing stars. Right? You’ll see the same stars you can see on earth, but you can see much more of them, because you’re above the atmosphere. So, the stars don’t twinkle. They’re perfect points of light.
MCWHORTER: Oh, they wouldn’t twinkle.
MASSIMINO: They don’t twinkle. You’re above that atmosphere. You can see the Magellanic clouds, the dust of the Milky Way galaxy. You can see the constellations. Looking at the planet, particularly from a space walk, it is the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. I think our Earth is truly meant to be seen from afar. And seeing that thin atmosphere, and then turning that head and looking at that blackness of space, and realizing that the only reason you’re alive is that you’re inside of a spaceship or you’re inside of a space suit. Our atmosphere is what’s keeping us alive. And we’re so lucky to be here. There’s no other option anywhere near. Again, turn the head and look. It’s blackness out there. It gives you the sense you really need to take care of this planet. It’s really important. It’s the only option we have.
DUBNER: Bari Weiss, we’ve been hearing from astronaut Mike Massimino about training for the space walk, doing the space walk. Remarkable descriptions of what it really feels like. Anything you care to challenge from the astronaut?
WEISS: Okay, so the MAG dates to 1988, and it actually replaced the DACT, which stands for Disposable Absorption Containment Trunk. And it was leaky. The DACT was leakier than the MAG. So, it was just a bad diaper.
MASSIMINO: I think diaper technology has really come a long way.
WEISS: I think so too. Some people like Mike watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and want to go. I was always just really interested in space food, because it’s really cool and weird. And I found out that when John Glenn orbited the earth, do you know what he ate?
MASSIMINO: I don’t know what John Glenn ate.
WEISS: He ate applesauce and beef puree in these toothpaste tubes.
MASSIMINO: Yeah, you don’t do that anymore.
WEISS: Things have gotten much more sophisticated. But there’s one dish that’s the most popular.
MASSIMINO: Want me to guess?
MASSIMINO: Shrimp cocktail.
WEISS: Yes! Exactly. And the reason that people love it is that when you’re in space, your palette changes, because it’s like you have a cold, essentially?
MASSIMINO: Correct. You have a fluid shift, I think, yeah.
WEISS: So people like sriracha and wasabi in space, too. They like things with a really big kick. And this shrimp cocktail, apparently, has like a really good kick.
MASSIMINO: It has a very spicy horseradish-y sauce. So it clears you up a little bit. You know, gravity works on our body. And we’ve evolved over all this time so that everything works in one-gravity, including the distribution of our fluid. All the fluid in our body is held in place, in part, by gravity. So when you go to a zero-gravity environment when we’re in space, it doesn’t have that force on it, and it tends to pool. The fluid pools in your upper body and it feels like a head cold.
DUBNER: Mike Massimino, thank you for playing Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Can we give one more hand to all our guests tonight? I thought that was pretty fantastic. It’s time now for our live audience to pick a winner. Before you vote, John McWhorter, Bari Weiss, and I will each talk a little bit about our favorites. Remember, everyone, the three criteria: Did the guest tell you something you truly did not know? Was it worth knowing? And was it demonstrably true? John, curious to know what you learned tonight.
MCWHORTER: You know, it’s hard to choose, because all of these were magnificent general-interest issues. You want to read the 5-foot shelf of books, I felt like we did that tonight. Obviously the bit about the buildings and the bit about space were interesting because they’re about up-high. But, you know, there are other things. Can you imagine there’s a national anthem that doesn’t have any effing words? I find that very interesting. And then with Rob Leonard, frankly, we’re in the same fraternity or sorority, whatever you want to call it. So, of course I’m gonna like that. And molecules have always fascinated me, whatever size they were. So it’s difficult to choose. I feel so informed. Bari, how do you feel?
WEISS: I just love the sort of obsessive quality of a lot of the people that were up here tonight. Especially Carol. I mean, Carol is dedicated to slender buildings. And I’m definitely gonna go to that museum. With Georgios, the fact that he’s working on a scale that I can’t even wrap my mind around it. And being in space, seeing the earth from the window, that’s hard to grasp, but I can kind of get it. Nanotechnology, I can’t. And certainly the MAG — I’m never gonna forget the MAG.
DUBNER: Yeah, as someone who dressed up as an astronaut for Halloween for I think ages 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11, I thought it was pretty cool to have a real one up here to tell us these stories. I never would have thought at all that water could be weaponized to fight bacteria. So I found that pretty fascinating. I’m glad I don’t have to vote. But you people in the audience do. So now it’s the time to do that. So who will it be?
- Jordi Getman-Eraso, with “The Lyric-Free Spanish National Anthem.”
- Carol Willis, with “New York’s Slender Skyscrapers.”
- Rob Leonard, with “Contaminated Speech” and bonus points for Sha Na Na founding.
- Georgios Pyrgiotakis, with “Antibacterial Water.”
- Mike Massimino, with “How to Prepare for Your First Space Walk.”
Once again, thanks so much to all our guest presenters. Our winner tonight — let me just say it pays to be an astronaut. Mike Massimino, “How to Prepare for Your First Space Walk.” So, Mike, congratulations. And to commemorate your victory, we’d like to present you with this Certificate of Impressive Knowledge. It reads, “I, Stephen Dubner, in collaboration with John McWhorter and Bari Weiss, do solemnly swear that astronaut Mike Massimino told us a whole lot of stuff we did not know, for which we are eternally grateful.” Thank you so much. And that is our show for tonight. I hope we told you something you didn’t know. Huge thanks to John and Bari. To our guests. And thanks especially to you all for coming to play Tell Me Something —
AUDIENCE: — I Don’t Know!
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Alison Craiglow, Emma Morgenstern, Brian Gutierrez, Harry Huggins, Dan Dzula, Rachel Jacobs, Nathan Rosborough, and David Herman, who also composed the Tell Me Something I Don’t Know theme music. Our staff also includes Greg Rosalsky, Greg Rippin, Alvin Melathe, and Andy Meisenheimer. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- John McWhorter, linguistics professor at Columbia University and host of Lexicon Valley.
- Bari Weiss, opinions editor for the New York Times.
- Jordi Getman-Eraso, history professor at Bronx Community College at the City University of New York.
- Carol Willis, founder, director, and curator of the Skyscraper Museum.
- Rob Leonard, linguistics professor at Hofstra University.
- Georgios Pyrgiotakis, research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.
- Mike Massimino, astronaut.