Radiolab: The Noise and Sloppiness of Life

By Carl Zimmer | June 16, 2009 9:58 am

Not too long ago I was interviewed for episode of the radio show Radiolab. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich led me to a windowless cubicle where they then grilled me for a long, long time. From that interrogation, they produce a medley in which I say:

“Sloppy, sloppy, noisy, chaos, jumble, chance, sloppy, sloppy…”

Fortunately, they also saved a little more of our conversation, which was on a topic near and dear to my heart: the noisiness of life. It’s a subject I discuss at some length in my book Microcosm (ahem–paperback coming out on July 14–ahem). To wit: if you think that down at the level of molecules and atoms our bodies are just regular clock-like devices that go tick-tock-tick-tock, you’d be wrong. It’s a sloppy, noisy process, out of which it’s amazing that the regularities and predictabilities of our lives emerge.

The episode that Jad and Robert produced, called “Stochasticity,” (listen here) looks at the many roles chance plays in our life–from the level of cells, where I tend to lurk, to the myth of the hot hand in basketball.

Of course, like any self-absorbed starlet, I must say now that some of my best work was left behind on the cutting-room floor, or at least inside somebody’s hard drive. It was inevitable, given how cool and multi-faceted the mystery of biological noise can be. For example, I talk about noise filters on Radiolab, but I didn’t talk about one of the most important ones, which keeps signals clear in in our brains. If you want to read more, check out this piece I wrote last year for Wired. And I also didn’t get to explain that noise isn’t just something to get rid of, just an unalloyed bad thing. In fact, life has evolved to use noise to its advantage. Even E. coli knows how to play the odds like a skilled gambler, as I explained last year in the New York Times.

And if you want to head straight for the scientific literature behind this story, a great place to start is with the wonderfully-named 2008 review, “Nature, Nurture, or Chance: Stochastic Gene Expression and Its Consequences” (pdf at author’s site)

[Image: jaxpix on Flickr, via Creative Commons Licence]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Microcosm: The Book, Talks

Comments (6)

Links to this Post

  1. Radiolab [The Frontal Cortex] «! | June 17, 2009
  1. Matt B

    Yay! Two of my favorite things colliding: the loom and radiolab. What a pleasant surprise.

  2. The Wired and New York Times pieces you linked to were brilliant, like the best things I’ve read in the last 6 months! I was really interested by the E-coli one in particular, because it reminded me of a lot of the things I learned about in Biochem but never really put into context or gave much thought to.

    It’s easy sometimes to think of bacteria and molecules as little machines that always behave one way – but when you start getting down to the molecular scale of life, things are always bumping around and making temporary connections – it just looks uniform because usually we observe the average of billions of events in a test-tube or on agar. Really enjoyed that post. I’d love to write one of my own sometime in the future and link to those articles, if you don’t mind. :)

  3. David B. Benson

    This seems an appropraite place to suggest reading “Into the Cool”, another take on life and bumping into things.

  4. Ian

    Here’s another review worth reading along the same lines, about stochastic resonance in biology:

  5. Carl,

    i just happen to listen to the “Stochasticity” Radiolab episode a couple of days ago. It’s a very informative episode (as usual) from the Radiolab team. your interview struck a chord with me when you described the “sloppiness” of signals at the gene-level — out of noise (or imbedded in the noise) comes order. when I heard your fascinating description the first question that came to my mind is: can we (humans) subjectively experience or feel the signals at the gene-level? how does it feel like if we can experience this noise at the gene-level?

    then i remember that in (Theravada) Buddhism there is a concept called “kalapas.” see for details –
    here’s a description of a kalapa:

    “The real meaning of Anicca is that Impermanence or Decay is the inherent nature of everything that exists in the Universe — whether animate or inanimate. The Buddha taught His disciples that everything that exists at the material level is composed of “Kalapas.” Kalapas are material units very much smaller than atoms, which die out immediately after they come into being. Each kalapa is a mass formed of the eight basic constituents of matter, the solid, liquid, calorific and oscillatory, together with color, smell, taste, and nutriment. The first four are called primary qualities, and are predominant in a kalapa. The other four are subsidiaries, dependent upon and springing from the former. A kalapa is the minutest particle in the physical plane — still beyond the range of science today. It is only when the eight basic material constituents unite together that the kalapa is formed. In other words, the momentary collocation of these eight basic elements of behavior makes a man just for that moment, which in Buddhism is known as a kalapa. The life-span of a kalapa is termed a moment, and a trillion such moments are said to elapse during the wink of a man’s eye. These kalapas are all in a state of perpetual change or flux. To a developed student in Vipassana Meditation they can be felt as a stream of energy.”

    based on the above description, the kalapa is at the sub-atomic level (not the gene-level). then again, since the “state of perpetual change or flux” also happens at the gene-level, it’s possible that what the Buddhists describe as a stream of energy can also be subjectively experienced at the gene-level.

    so what’s my point? i just find this parallel very intriguing. modern science sheds light on the objective nature of reality, while contemplative science (specifically Buddhist practice) enables one to have a subjective experience of the nature of reality (or so they claim). maybe someday these two complimentary objective/subjective approaches will be integrated into a more complete scientific investigation of life and the nature of reality.

    take care and keep up the great work!



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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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