Transcript

141:

Invisible Worlds
Transcript

Originally aired 10.01.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/141

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Let's start with what's legal. Let's start with what we're allowed to hear.

Man

This would be actually your off-the-shelf radio here. And so to power it up--

Woman On Police Scanner

OK. And I'll go ahead and give you your short now. It's a 83-year-old male, difficulty breathing, O2 sats are falling.

Man On Police Scanner

811 receive.

Ira Glass

These are transmissions from a police scanner, a little radio the size of a walkie-talkie that picks up 911 dispatches, fire, highway patrol, the police. There are lots of people who listen in.

Man

There's been many instances, where, for an hour, they've tracked an individual on foot, running through neighborhoods. And as you're listening to the police officer running and talking into his mic at the same time, and they're panting, they're out of breath. And a lot of times you'll hear an officer tackle an individual, and, at the same time, he's trying to talk on his mic. And you can hear the struggle. You can hear the screaming, the yelling, the swearing. And you are there. Literally, you are there.

Woman On Police Scanner

I have another party trying to get the patient to vomit now. We're trying to instruct him not to do that. He said that he is acting sleepy.

Man On Police Scanner

811 copy.

Ira Glass

It's legal to listen in to emergency transmissions like this. But there is an entire invisible world, thousands of voices, passing through your body right now on radio waves, signals from cellular phones and cordless phones, military transmissions, and baby monitors, voices that you are not supposed to listen to.

Man

I have a hard time accepting that. I think that if it's traveling through my body right now, why shouldn't I be allowed to listen to it? I don't care how sensitive the material is. If you're transmitting it through my body, I'm going to monitor it.

Ira Glass

Today, on our radio program, people who are trying to make this invisible world visible, like this man, like many others, and stories of other invisible worlds.

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today, seeing the invisible world, stories of what is all around us all the time beyond sight.

Act One of our program, Faster Than A Speeding Bullet. People who figure out ways to hide 80-foot radio antennas in their backyards, who monitor the radio voices that are passing through all of our bodies right now at the speed of light, and what they know that you and I don't know. Act Two, More Powerful Than A Locomotive. We've all been in conversations where something, some truth, just hovers in the air unsaid, everybody aware of it. In this act, we examine just how powerful that force can be with case examples from David Sedaris, Scott Carrier, Sarah Vowell, Brady Udall, and Lan Samantha Chang.

Act Three, Able To Leap Tall Buildings. This is the story of a man who sneaks through back hallways, searches abandoned subway stations, crawls through miles of drain pipe, and in general, goes all the places that you are not supposed to go. And what he finds there. Act Four, Look, Up In The Sky. My friend, what sort of incredibly sophisticated species are we? We are a species that, to confirm the existence of one of the basic building blocks of our universe, a subatomic particle hurdling here from the sun all the time, we had to use some of the same materials that you would use to remove a stain from a tie. Stay with us.

Act One. Faster Than A Speeding Bullet.

Ira Glass

Act One, Faster Than A Speeding Bullet. Well, it took a while for our producer Alex Blumberg to enter the community of people who listen in on the invisible world at the nether reaches of the radio spectrum, so much of their listening is illegal. But he found a guide or two.

Alex Blumberg

I'll call him George. We met over email. He said he knew lots of people who were involved in hard-core monitoring, illegal stuff. But he wouldn't get into the details. He said he didn't want to elaborate until we met in person. I expected a sunlight-deprived mole-man type, phreak spelled with a PH. But George pulled up in a red sports car. He wore a backwards baseball cap. I liked him. He said his father bought him his first radio, a regular AM transistor radio, when he was four or five.

George

And from that moment on, I was hooked. Every night, before I went to bed, I'd fiddle with it. And I'd tune the static noise. And I always loved tuning between the actual audible stations. Every once in a while, you'd hear a station ID from several states away, sometimes, whatever, a quarter or halfway across the country. And it was just bewildering to me that these signals could travel such great distances.

Alex Blumberg

At age 10, he went to Radio Shack and got his first scanning radio, one that tunes frequencies outside the normal FM and AM bands. In those days, the instruction manuals that came in the box actually told you how to use the equipment to eavesdrop on cordless phone conversations.

George

And so thumbing through the manual, I thought that would be one of the more intriguing things to monitor. So that's probably one of the first things I tuned to. And sure enough, there's several. Dozens of neighbors blabbing away, talking about marital situations, everything.

Alex Blumberg

How were you feeling when you were listening to those people? Was it something like-- I mean I imagine it must have been a mixture of emotions as you're listening. What were they?

George

Actually, again, you got to remember I was very young at this stage, I don't know, whatever, 10 or so. And there were no mixed emotions. It was just plain exciting.

Alex Blumberg

But George got bored with his neighbors' marital squabbles. His radio collection grew to include declassified military receivers, shortwave radios, old Motorola walkie-talkies picked up at flea markets. He would listen at night, tuning new bands, different frequencies, fishing through static, hunting for transmissions like this one.

George

I believe I had just begun to fiddle with the radio that evening. And I just got lucky. I was just tuning a portion of the spectrum that I usually don't tune. And very, very slowly was spinning the tuning dial.

All of a sudden, you hear this faint noise in the background. And you kind of zero in and find out exactly what frequency it is. And then from there, utilize the rest of the components on the radio to zero in on that frequency, pull it out of the mud, and you could understand by what was being said that it was a rescue operation. I heard one of individuals transmit their call. And I looked it up. And it was obviously a Coast Guard helicopter.

And it then became obvious that they were off the coast of Florida. And people were in the water, they were trying to pull them out. Things were not going very well. They could not reach the individual. And you're there.

Time just starts to go so quick then. It seemed like I'd been listening for, I don't know, maybe 10, 15 minutes. But after glancing at the clock, it had probably been one or two hours. It literally felt like 5 or 10 minutes. It's almost like waking up from a dream, especially when you take the headset off, and there are, whatever, ambient room noises start to fill your head again. It's like waking up from a dream.

Alex Blumberg

For two decades, George has been entering this dream world nearly every day for hours, mapping the terrain of the electromagnetic spectrum.

George

The portion of the spectrum that most of us are familiar with-- the AM, FM broadcast bands that you get on your car radio, your home stereo, whatever-- they're just an extremely small grain of sand on a massive beach. And the exciting stuff is really outside of that area.

It's a world that can be heard, but not seen. It's everything just rolled into one big ball. And people have to realize that it's vast. It's astronomically huge. Again, I've been doing this for 20 years, and I haven't even scratched the surface. I haven't even begun to get a grasp on everything that's out there.

Morpheus

Out here, we have a total of five antennas. The top antenna is what's called a Grove Scanner Beam. It looks like the television antenna. The little one below it--

Alex Blumberg

I'll call this guy Morpheus. Morpheus is one of George's idols. George says Morpheus lives, breathes, and sleeps radio. We're in Morpheus's backyard, and he's showing us his antennas, three on the roof, each with a different purpose, and two more that run from the house underground where they come up at the base of a tall tree.

Morpheus

This is where it comes out. And these go approximately about 80 feet up the tree. If you look up the tree back here a little bit, you might be able to see them. I painted them a flat black, as compared to their original color, which is a nice shiny silver. You can see up there with a little coil.

Alex Blumberg

Oh yeah.

Morpheus

Yeah, that's them.

Alex Blumberg

He's afraid that if people would see two 80-foot antennas from the street, they'd break in and steal his equipment. Inside, Morpheus crams most of his gear on a beat-up set of wooden shelves. They're right next to the bed where he and his wife sleep, so if emergency channels start chattering in the middle of the night, he won't have to sprint across the hall to hear. He shows me a computer that, incredibly, gives a real-time readout of every city and county employee using a two-way radio at that instant from state trooper to municipal groundskeeper. He shows me portable radio gear and a safe where he stores two high-powered assault rifles.

Then he steers me to something he calls, "The great book of all knowledge."

Morpheus

What we have here is a very large three-ring binder, a few inches thick, full of pages and pages of numbers and little notes. What this is, is a compilation of pretty much everything I can receive from here as a personal reference. I've compiled this since I've been-- oh, jeez-- about 18 years worth of work here, on and off. This covers what I refer to as "DC to daylight," which means basically all frequencies from zero to a zillion. We'll go to the bottom here. Well, it's really low.

Alex Blumberg

The binder is like a phone book except instead of last names, there are five and six digit numbers representing frequencies. And next to each frequency is a brief description of what it's used for. Morpheus flips through page by page and points. "This frequency is a pirate shortwave. That one's what commercial airplanes use to communicate with the control tower."

Morpheus

Well, let's see. United States Air Force Hickam. Hickam is in Hawaii. Submarine teletype, nothing to listen to there. Shortwave broadcast. Ooh, clandestine military activity. And then these--

Alex Blumberg

He points to a whole range of frequencies, taking up a page or two in the binder. "The Air Force's global high-frequency system," he says. The most powerful shortwave communications system in the world. It enables jets over the Pacific to talk to jets over the Atlantic. "If you get lucky and tune one of the frequencies while it's active," Morpheus says, "you can often hear the roar of the plane engines in the background. But you're not likely to understand what the pilots are saying to one another."

Morpheus

And what they do, instead of encrypting their signal, such that all you would hear is static, instead you can hear everything they say, but it's coded. They'll say, "Joker one, joker one, we have a message." And then this code comes out like, "Bravo, Delta, Two, Niner, One, Charlie, Foxtrot." And you get the idea.

Alex Blumberg

What does it mean?

Morpheus

Who knows? That's why they encode it.

Make sure everybody safe and comfortable. This thing's cold. I haven't driven it all day. And just FYI, no, I don't drive like a psycho.

Alex Blumberg

It's dark now. And we are, in Morpheus's words, "hot rodding American style" in one of his five cars, a black Monte Carlo, eight miles to the gallon. We're call jumping. That's the term for cruising with an onboard scanner, looking for action. Very quickly, we hear a promising squawk.

Male Voice

There's a car in pursuit. Eastbound [UNINTELLIGIBLE] 104.

Morpheus

Oh crap, that's the other way.

Alex Blumberg

We're stuck in a line of cars at a broken traffic light, and there's no way to turn around before we get through the intersection.

Male Voice

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] vehicle. He is running without lights. We just have one occupant in it. Very light traffic.

Alex Blumberg

Finally, we make it through the light. But before we can turn around and head in the right direction--

Female Voice

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] with one in custody.

Morpheus

They already got him. That was quick.

Alex Blumberg

They're listening for certain words, pursuit, structure fire, accident. But after an hour of driving, we've come up with nothing worth chasing. We all get a little bored. For fun, we scan some non-emergency frequencies.

Man In Drive

I want one Whopper, please.

Drive

One Whopper?

Man In Drive

Yeah.

Drive

Is that all?

Man In Drive

Yeah.

Drive

$2.05.

Alex Blumberg

Over the course of a week, I meet a bunch of these guys. They all notice antennas everywhere they go. They all swap recordings like the one they played me, made with a scanner, of a madam at a Canadian escort service, taking orders and dispatching ladies over a cordless phone. And they all complain that the things they hear over the airwaves at night never make it on the news the next day.

I kept thinking that people with access to all this information would want to do something with it on either side of the law. Tracking police brutality or uncovering government scandals on the one hand. Stealing credit card information or blackmailing philandering cellphone users on the other. But they don't. They're not that choosy about what they listen to. What's thrilling to them is the simple marvel that voices fill the air, pass through us all the time.

George

I don't know. I guess with all of these radio waves going through my body right now, I guess I feel like a radio sometimes.

Alex Blumberg

You feel like a radio?

George

Yeah. Well, we're all antennas. And I guess I feel a true connection with these transmissions. I even enjoy just listening to an open carrier or just static, just static. It's the essence of the wave. It's the pure energy of whatever it is. I don't know what it is. It's a radio wave that possesses some sort of special power.

Alex Blumberg

At the end of our long night driving around, we stop for one last snack before heading home. We were just talking now, joking around, trading stories.

Male Friend In Car

I've heard the guy in the Mir space station talk. And when they've buzzed overhead, that's pretty wild even though, of course, it's all in Russian.

Alex Blumberg

You heard the guy on the Mir?

Male Friend In Car

Yeah, sure have.

Morpheus

You can hear satellites anytime we hear day or night.

Alex Blumberg

They punch one up.

Morpheus

That's a satellite.

[SOUND OF OBJECT RUSHING BY AND METALLIC SOUNDS]

Morpheus

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]. That's what it sounds like. Like a weather satellite. And that's with an ordinary handheld scanner.

Alex Blumberg

We pulled out of the parking lot. Our Monte Carlo guzzled gas. The streetlights lit the empty strip malls. And from somewhere in the sky, too far away to see, a satellite played on our radio.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg.

[MUSIC - "TURN YOUR RADIO ON" BY ROY ACUFF]

Act Two. More Powerful Than A Locomotive.

Ira Glass

Act Two, More Powerful Than A Locomotive. Well, in putting together this week's show, we were all talking about the various invisible forces that are all around us, forces that we usually don't think about. And somebody brought up the idea that one of the most powerful forces in a room can be the thing that is unspoken between people.

When there is a conversation and there's something that everyone is avoiding acknowledging, avoiding saying, everybody feels it, and you feel its presence with this intensity that is all the greater because the thing is unsaid. The unsaid thing just kind of hovers there, obliterating all the things that are actually being said. It hangs there, immaterial, unspoken, exerting a dense emotional force field. And we thought, in this program today where we're trying to make other invisible forces visible, let us make this one visible as well. And to do that, we turned to five writers, asking each one for a story about some moment when they felt the presence of something unspoken.

Scott Carrier

I'm having some pain in my tooth, my upper right rear molar. So I call a dentist, one I've never been to before, and he says I can come by at noon, that he'll take a late lunch. When I get there, he tells me the tooth is dead.

"It's going to need four root canals," he says. "I can do them in 45 minutes. Some guys say they can do them in a half hour, but really, it takes 45 to get everything and do a good job. I'll order out for a burger and do it right now if you want." I say, yeah, OK, and ask him if he has any nitrous oxide. He says he has some, but he doesn't usually use it.

"It takes a few minutes to set up," he says. "But if you're the squeamish type, I suppose we could pull the tanks out of the closet." Squeamish? Squeamish? This guy is going to drill four small holes one inch below my brain, and he's saying, I'm squeamish.

He's about my age, a little chubby, wearing expensive golf clothes and a gold necklace. I want to tell him to [BLEEP] off, but I say, "Yeah, I want some gas." He tells his assistant, a young man, to set up the gas and then walks out to the front desk and asks his secretary to go get him an Arby's roast beef sandwich. The kid straps on the mask, and I start taking slow, deep breaths, trying to fill every cubic inch of my lungs. I start feeling it almost immediately, a subtle separation of mind and body.

The dentist comes back and shoots my jaw with Novocain and asks if I'm feeling the nitrous. I lie and say, "No, not yet." He tells the kid to turn it up and starts to drill.

I inhale longer, deeper. I inhale and inhale, and it seems like I never exhale. Nitrous oxide is amazing. Nitrous oxide is my very good friend. I hope to leave my body and float above the chair.

While he drills, the dentist talks with his young assistant. He says, "So I hear you're leaving for South Carolina?" And the kid says, "Yeah, in a couple of weeks." At first, I think he's going away to college, but then the dentist says, "Well, say hello to President Benson for me. He's a great guy." And I realize then that they're both Mormons and that the kid is leaving to go on his mission.

I live in Salt Lake City. I grew up with Mormons. All my Mormon friends went on missions. I know the whole deal, how they take 19-year-old boys and screw them up for life. When I was younger, I was more tolerant of their beliefs and practices, thinking that this is America and that the Mormons can believe whatever they want, including the notion that God promised this land to them and that they are his chosen people. But as I've gotten older, I've become less willing to put up with it.

I don't believe that their patriarch Joseph Smith was visited by an angel who showed him where some golden plates were buried in upstate New York. I don't believe the plates were a record of a people written in reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics, which Joseph Smith then translated through the miraculous aid of a seer stone and a breastplate-type device he called the Urim and Thummim. And more than anything, I can't believe I'm letting a man who does believe in all of this drill small holes in my head. There were no golden plates. There were no golden plates. There were no golden plates.

The dentist asked me, "How's that gas doing? Feeling no pain, huh?" And both he and his young assistant laugh at me. I groan like it's not working. And again, he tells the kid to turn it up.

I take a long, hard bong hit, and it's all settled now. I know the dentist is a Mormon, and he knows I'm a druggie. That even though we've just met, it's like we've known each other for 25 years since we went to different high schools together, back when he gave up masturbating in order to get into the celestial kingdom, back when I gave up all respect for authority and tried to leave town forever. He knows he doesn't like me, and I know I don't like him. And we both know he's charging $1,000 an hour for his time, and that I will pay off the bill very slowly, finishing some time just before Jesus comes back.

David Sedaris

A woman I once worked for came to Paris on vacation, and we went for lunch at a little restaurant around the corner from my apartment. We'd just sat down when she cleared her throat saying, "I don't know if I ever told you this, but I really didn't think much of your last book." This came out of nowhere. It was as if she'd looked on the menu and read that the chef's suggestion was to tell someone what you really thought.

I one-upped her, saying that she couldn't have hated the book half as much as I did. And this set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, both of us agreeing that my life was decidedly second-rate. After our lunch, we were standing in front of my apartment, her deciding that the building was unremarkable and me conceding that yes, it was. We said goodbye, and then she lurched forward, subjecting me to a hug, which I really wasn't expecting at all. I never hug anyone if I can help it.

To make things just that much more awkward, I was holding a lit cigarette that proceeded to burn a hole in her obviously new and first-rate jacket. We both knew what had happened. She caught me staring at the hole, and then she caught me deadening my gaze and pretending to be lost in thought. It was clearly my responsibility to acknowledge what had happened, to offer to pay for the coat, or at least to apologize. I was close to cracking, and then I decided that, while it had been my cigarette, it had definitely not been my hug.

And so we stood there for what seemed like hours, one of us introducing a possible conclusion, and the other one rephrasing it. "Well, all right then." "OK." "So--" "Well--" "Golly." "Gosh." "Well, what do you know."

Sarah Vowell

"Still married?" I ask him on the way to lunch. "Unfortunately," he answers. He laughs. I laugh. That's the only thing we say about it, his being married, me wishing he wasn't, the both of us wondering if this lunch is such a good idea considering the feeling we both get around each other.

I have an ulterior motive for this little get-together. My hope is that by the end of the lunch, I'll like him less. We have a lot to talk about, a lot in common-- music, movies, history, books. I avoid these topics and steer the conversation towards politics. He's a republican, and let's just say, I have an LBJ keychain in my pocket.

Actually, he's a libertarian which, as near as I can tell, is just a republican who doesn't believe in God. He's really excited about the flat tax. The more he goes on about the flat tax, the more thrilled I feel because I loathe the flat tax. I keep nodding along, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, really?"

All the while, I'm telling myself, "See, I can't fall for a flat taxer. The flat tax is about greed. I'm about civic duty, tax and spend, tax and spend." It works. For, what is less sexy than the mention of Steve Forbes?

I run through all the usual issues. Unfortunately, we agree about abortion and gun control and education. I start going soft, doddering on about assault rifles, all the while noticing his hand resting there on the table so near my own. It would be so easy, so quick to just reach for it-- his hand. But there is that wedding ring on one of his fingers. I look up, stare deep into his eyes and say, "So you didn't happen to vote for Ross Perot, did you?"

Brady Udall

My eight-year-old son found a wig in the garbage dumpster this morning. I walked into the kitchen, highly irritated that I couldn't make a respectable knot in my green paisley tie. And there he was at the table, eating cereal and reading the funnies, the wig pulled tightly over his head like a football helmet. The wig was a dirty bush of curly blond hair, the kind you might see on a prostitute or someone who is trying to imitate Marilyn Monroe.

I asked him where he got the wig, and he told me, his mouth full of cereal. When I advised him that we don't wear things that we find in the garbage, he simply continued eating and reading as if he didn't hear me. I wanted him to take that wig off, but I couldn't ask him to do it. I forgot all about my tie and going to work. I looked out the window where a mist fell slowly on the street.

I paced into the living room and back, trying not to look at my son. He ignored me. I could hear him munching cereal and rustling paper. There was a picture or a memory, real or imagined, that I couldn't get out of my mind. Last spring, before the accident, my wife was sitting in the chair where now my son always sits. She was reading the paper to see how the Blackhawks did the night before, and her sleep-mussed hair was only slightly longer and darker than the hair of my son's wig.

I wondered if my son had a similar picture in his head, or if he had a picture at all. I watched him, and he finally looked up at me, but his face was blank. He went back to his reading. I walked around the table, picked him up, and held him against my chest. I pressed my nose into that wig, and it smelled not like the clean shampoo scent I might have been hoping for, but like old lettuce. I suppose it didn't matter at that point. My son put his smooth arms around my neck, and for maybe a few seconds, we were together again, the three of us.

Lan Samantha Chang

Before my grandmother died, she brought my sister Sally and me to a fortune teller in Chinatown who never made mistakes. My grandmother believed in fate. She believed that the twists and turns of our lives were mapped out at birth, as clear as pages from a book of standard plotlines. I, on the other hand, was a rationalist and a skeptic. And Sally was simply distracted. She was the beautiful one. She was getting married, and she had her own life.

The fortune teller was a tall Buddhist monk whose huge bald head startled me. He studied my palm, pressed my hands, and peered into my face. His eyes were shrewd and bright. In that moment, I forgot I was a rationalist. I wanted his opinion of me.

The fortune teller and my grandmother faced each other, talking rapidly, moving their hands. They spoke in a Sichuan dialect I could not decipher. My future floated through the air in inaccessible words. I waited for the translation. Maybe I would learn who I would marry. Maybe I would find out if I could pursue my ambition of becoming a writer.

Finally, after several minutes, the monk turned back to me. He said, in English, "You should eat more slowly. Eat less oil. Exercise." Then he beckoned to my sister.

I stood with my mouth open, furious, as he spoke to Sally. Eat more slowly? Eat less grease? Was I destined to die of heart failure? The monk was holding out on me.

The more I thought about it, the more I had to know. But my grandmother refused to talk. She would ignore my questions and plant herself at the kitchen table, spreading hot pepper sauce on whole wheat toast and shaking her head. In the next few years, I could only pry from her a few vague pieces of information, and what I learned wasn't comforting. She said I would have money and fame, but that my luck would not be steady.

She especially wouldn't talk about Sally who had always been her favorite. "She has peach blossom luck," she told me once. A few months later, my grandmother died. Since then, I've asked about peach blossom luck, but the explanations are never the same. "Too much desired," someone once said. And I wondered what was wrong with that.

It's only recently, since my sister's divorce, that I've begun to see how complicated being desired is. Nowadays, I live a rational life. I write in the morning. I meet my sister for lunch, and we talk about our relationships. We tell each other, we need to learn to let go, stop trying to control the outcome.

But in the back of my mind, I'm standing with Sally in the darkened room of a Chinatown temple, trying to piece together words in a dialect I can't understand. I'm listening for the answers to our most important questions, answers that have joined the great catalog of things I'll never hear. I'm more like my grandmother than I thought. I believe those answers exist. They are our fate. They are encoded in every word I write, in the swinging line of my sister's dress. They hover in the room around us, waiting to be seen.

Ira Glass

In order of appearance, writers Scott Carrier, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Brady Udall, and Lan Samantha Chang.

[MUSIC - "YOU'LL NEVER KNOW" BY THE PLATTERS]

Coming up, scientists stumble on a problem they cannot solve. And the only thing they can think of is an act of pure faith. Somewhere, they decide, somewhere, there must exist an invisible particle, a tiny particle with no weight and no charge. And then they go looking for it. What they find, and other unlikely stories of how the world is put together in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Able To Leap Tall Buildings.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of people to tackle that theme. Today's program, seeing the invisible world, stories of the unseen forces that affect our everyday life and what happens when we finally see them. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Able To Leap Tall Buildings.

Well, my friend, I hold in my hand a stack of zines, self-published magazines. They are called Infiltration. The subhead written underneath says, "The zine about going places you're not supposed to go." And people write into this zine from all over the world, mapping out their adventures prowling through construction sites, deserted buildings, steam tunnels under university campuses-- there's a big article here on UCLA-- subway tunnels, abandoned subway stations, drainage pipes, catacombs, plus-- if that were not enough-- the back hallways of hotels, hospitals, office buildings. One article is on an abandoned missile silo in Roswell, New Mexico.

The guy who puts the zine together does not give out his name publicly, but he did agree to an interview from his hometown in Toronto, where he has been sneaking behind the edges of the normal visible world for years.

Zine Publisher

About three or four years ago, I had to stay in the hospital for several weeks one summer. And while I was confined to the hospital and wasn't allowed to leave, I got very, very bored. So I took to exploring the hospital. Each night, I would walk around in my flimsy little bathrobe and my plastic slippers, and just see all the secret sites of the hospital.

Ira Glass

And what sort of things would you find-- would you see when you walked around?

Zine Publisher

I found abandoned wings in the hospital.

Ira Glass

Entire wings?

Zine Publisher

Yeah. So that was really fun. Got to explore all the rooms, and see where patients had been kept, and investigate all the wonderful tools they'd used to heal them. And went down to the morgue and the engineering levels. And managed to get up onto the roof at a few different places.

Ira Glass

You devoted an entire issue of your zine, Infiltration, to this. And at one point, on page 12, you have a diagram, four photos that's a sort of step-by-step instruction to the reader. Over the photos, it says, "To visit F-wing's locked elevator room, go up this ladder." And there's a photo of the ladder.

And then there's another photo. "Climb through the door, out onto the roof." Shot of the roof. "Find this open window." Shot of the open window. "Lower yourself in and enjoy." And then there's a picture of the locked elevator room.

Zine Publisher

Yeah, I was really proud of that one, because listening to the whirring and clanking behind that door was driving me mad, because it was always locked every time I checked. And eventually, I found a nice indirect route to get in there. And that was quite a triumph.

Ira Glass

And then once you lower yourself in and enjoy, what's it mean to enjoy that room?

Zine Publisher

Well, to savor it. You take the pictures, proving your conquest. You get to understand what was behind all those sounds that you heard from the other side of the door. In this case, it was sort an elevator room. So I realized, a-ha, the reason for those random patterns of sound was people were summoning the elevator at different times. And it was going up different numbers of floors and so on. So it all made sense. It was very satisfying.

Ira Glass

What do you know about this world that is invisible to most of us that the rest of us don't know?

Zine Publisher

I don't think I understand it better than the average person. Really, I'm just keenly aware of its presence and impressed by that. Certainly, if there are interesting noises coming from somewhere, I'll pick up on it. Or if I'm walking over a grate, I'll try to figure out what exactly I'm walking on top of.

Ira Glass

I never think about grates as something to look down. Will you actually lift up a grate and lower yourself down the ladder to what's there?

Zine Publisher

Yeah, and that's usually pretty easy to do, at least here in Toronto. It's not too tricky to find an unlocked one. And there is usually a ladder.

Ira Glass

What's down there?

Zine Publisher

The standard grates that I'm talking about will lead to a network of steam tunnels, which aren't usually accessible directly from the street. They'll just lead to a little hot room with one or more locked doors at the bottom, usually locked.

Ira Glass

Have you seen the movie The Matrix by any chance?

Zine Publisher

Yes, I have.

Ira Glass

I was wondering if you felt a special relationship to that movie in some way, that notion of all of you are seeing this thing that's in front of you, but there's an entire world behind the scrim.

Zine Publisher

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You did?

Zine Publisher

Yeah, I definitely identified very strongly. It really is like that, because most people have no idea the extent to which they are being coddled and taken care of. The millions and millions of dollars and man hours that go into all the support systems that sustain them and make it possible for them to live in an urban environment.

Ira Glass

Do you think the rest of us are missing something interesting and important by not seeing this world?

Zine Publisher

Yeah, I really do think so. I think that the secret part of a city is generally much more interesting than the open-to-the-public part. If you know what's going on under the streets-- you know there are another four levels of city underneath the one that you're walking on-- it really adds a lot to your understanding of the world you live in, I think.

Ira Glass

You said there are four levels underneath the street level?

Zine Publisher

Oh well, that would probably apply to Toronto where there would be heating tunnels, gas lines, subway tunnels, and then stormwater drains. In Chicago, there would probably be six levels. In New York, there would probably be a good dozen, I would think.

Ira Glass

Is the thing that's the most interesting thing about this secret world the fact that it is secret?

Zine Publisher

If it were open for tours, it would not be that interesting.

Ira Glass

Now is it true that your devotion to exploring around is so thorough that sometimes you'll be on a date, and you'll see a doorway or whatever and abandon the date?

Zine Publisher

That's not an uncommon occurrence for me to ask someone I'm out with to come with me or wait somewhere for me for 10 minutes. I mean sometimes when you see a certain door that's open in a certain way, you know that you'd be missing a huge opportunity if you didn't check it out.

Ira Glass

Tell me about the most recent time when that's happened.

Zine Publisher

That happened a month, month and a half ago, when I was just walking through a subway station and happened to be strolling down a main hallway in the station and noticed out of the corner of my eye that, off, down a hallway a little bit, there was a door open with some unpainted cement behind, which is usually a revealing sign that someone has accidentally left a door open.

So I said to the person I was with, "Will you come and check that out with me?" And she said, "No." So I said, "OK, well, just wait here 10 minutes." And I went through the door, found a tiny little freight elevator, took that down a few levels, wound up in a mechanical room, saw what it had to offer, found I couldn't go back out the same way that I came in, so I had to exit out to the street, and then pay my fare, and come back into the subway station again to meet up with her.

Ira Glass

It sounds like it took more than 10 minutes.

Zine Publisher

It may have taken a little longer than 10 minutes, yes.

Ira Glass

So when you're going to go out with somebody, is your motto kind of "bring a book?"

Zine Publisher

Yeah, well, the kind of people I would go out with would generally be armed with a book, I would say.

I think overcoming your own mental block against going somewhere you're not supposed to go is usually the biggest hurdle. Most people seem to just have this instinct to stay on path, make sure they only go places they've been clearly told they're allowed to go. They don't need to be told not to go. They actually specifically need to be told that they can enter a place before they will.

I've drawn the comparison before that fish farmers, they use these special underwater tanks that blow little tiny oxygen bubbles through tubes. And the fish see a wall of oxygen bubbles, so they don't swim through that wall. The idea is that fish will perceive that there's a solid wall there. And therefore, they'll all stay put. And I think that's the exact same reason why people stay confined to the designated public areas of a street level, rather than fully exploring their environment. They perceive walls that aren't there.

Ira Glass

The publisher of Infiltration, the zine about going places you're not supposed to go. Their website has the easy-to-remember name www.infiltration.org.

Act Four.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Look, Up In The Sky. Well, astrophysicists have come to believe that the universe is made up more of things that we cannot see-- dark matter, subatomic particles-- than things we can see. And one way to describe the process of science is that it chases after and names what is invisible to us. Nancy Updike invites you to consider the case of one subatomic particle, the neutrino.

Nancy Updike

What you are sitting there right now not feeling yourself experiencing is the passage through your body, every second, of hundreds of neutrinos. They are so small that, to a neutrino, your body is mostly the empty space between the atoms, space for it to move through at the speed of light. Now neutrinos are able to do this because they have no electric charge and practically no weight. They are about 10 million times lighter than the smallest atomic particle. No one has ever seen one.

The most abundant natural source of neutrinos in this corner of the galaxy is the sun, which releases neutrinos during nuclear reactions at its core. These neutrinos travel through space, unchanged, without stopping, forever. And since they're unchanged, they're one of the few ways we have to figure out exactly what's going on at the sun's core.

So here's the equipment we, as a species, chose to use to try to confirm the existence of these delicate, elusive particles. A solid rock chamber dug into a gold mine in South Dakota, a metal tank the size of a small ranch house, and, inside the tank, 100,000 gallons of--

Ray Davis

Dry cleaning fluid.

Nancy Updike

Yes, dry cleaning fluid. Because it's cheap, and because it contains chlorine. Ray Davis is the chemist who designed this experiment, which is called Homestake. He's been studying solar neutrinos for 30 years.

Ray Davis

The more liquid you have and the bigger the thing is, the more you capture in the tank.

Nancy Updike

So it just increases the likelihood?

Ray Davis

Yes.

Nancy Updike

Because you have to account for the fact that most neutrinos are just going to keep going and are not going to be stopped.

Ray Davis

Yes, most of them don't interact at all. I mean they just go right through the tanks as if it wasn't there, and the liquid, the whole thing, and go out the mine the other way and go to Japan. Now that's the way neutrinos are.

Nancy Updike

Here's how it works. The chlorine in dry cleaning fluid, when it's bombarded with neutrinos, produces atoms of a radioactive gas called argon-37. And when you count up the argon-37 atoms you've collected in the tank, you know that for each argon atom, one neutrino passed through the tank. I know all of this because I've been obsessed with neutrinos ever since I first talked to Ray four years ago. And I have to tell you that I am here as an advocate, a fan. I don't just want you to understand neutrinos. I want you to love them.

Consider their history. Neutrinos weren't discovered so much as imagined as a bizarre answer to an especially thorny problem. In the early part of this century, scientists thought they understood pretty well the basic workings of the atom. But when they measured the amount of energy atoms give off during radioactive decay, the numbers didn't come out right. Now, they could have concluded that perhaps our understanding of the atom was wrong, but they didn't. They came up with something that, to a non-scientist, seems a lot crazier.

Ray Davis

Wolfgang Pauli suggested that maybe something comes out you can't see.

Nancy Updike

Wolfgang Pauli was exactly the sort of scientist who could say something like that with a straight face. "Hey, maybe what's happening here is that a particle is coming out that we can't see, a special, secret, invisible particle." Since Pauli was smarter than almost everyone else, nobody told him he was nuts. In fact, other scientists took his idea very seriously.

Ray Davis

And Fermi--

Nancy Updike

This is Enrico Fermi, a scientist.

Ray Davis

Enrico Fermi. He'd developed a theory that would take this into account, and he called this "the neutrino," the little, neutral one. He said, the particle is neutral, and it should be almost impossible to detect. And for many years, that was a real problem.

Nancy Updike

This was the problem that Ray Davis started with as a young chemist after World War II. He wanted to detect neutrinos. Since the lab where he worked had a nuclear reactor on site, and since neutrinos are continually emitted during nuclear reactions, he decided to start there with, of course, some dry cleaning fluid in a relatively small container, a 55-gallon drum. It didn't work.

Ray Davis

You have to have a more sensitive detector. And you have to go underground.

Nancy Updike

Underground, so that the earth would shield the experiment from other particles from space that kept confusing Ray's results. Thus began Ray's seemingly counterintuitive plan to pursue one of the universe's most minuscule, ethereal particles by building bigger and bigger containers and moving them further and further underground. Until finally, he was building a 100,000-gallon tank a mile underground.

Ray Davis

I can show you some pictures of these.

Nancy Updike

Yeah, I'd love to see them. Oh, that's the tank.

Ray Davis

That's the tank.

Nancy Updike

It looks like a huge vitamin capsule.

Ray Davis

Yes, the engineers call that a horizontal blimp. And it's a tank that's about 50 feet long and 20 feet in diameter. Now these are the posts that--

Nancy Updike

Gosh, it's huge! There's a man standing there, and he--

Ray Davis

That's me.

[LAUGHTER]

Nancy Updike

Some man standing there.

One of the great things about Homestake is that it was almost written off as a complete flop. But over time, it proved itself right and changed forever the way we look at the sun. Basically, Homestake challenged decades of accepted stellar evolution theory. Ray was supposed to register 10 neutrinos a day in his tank, and that number was based on careful calculations using everything scientists already knew about nuclear processes. Instead, Ray saw only two neutrinos a day. And his results never changed significantly.

And no one could explain the problem of the missing neutrinos other than to tell Ray his experiment just wasn't working. It wasn't until other neutrino detectors started being built in the 1980s that Ray's results were confirmed once and for all. And scientists finally began to face the mess that neutrinos presented them with.

There's the science of things you can see and touch, surgeons studying the heart, Diane Fossey out there with the gorillas. And there's the science of things you can't see. When Ray started his neutrino experiments, the director of his lab tried to warn him off. He only liked science he could see.

Ray Davis

A guy that works on things that are in the laboratory, hands-on, that do this and that, you know where you stand. When you get up to the middle of the sun, you're kind of in deep water, and you do the best you can.

Nancy Updike

I'm on the other side of the argument from Ray's former boss. I'm all for invisibility. I think it imposes humility, and that's a good thing. No one has ever seen a neutrino, no scientist, no fan. In the face of neutrinos, we are all fumbling around in the middle of the sun, doing the best we can. What we can't see rules us, love, God, neutrinos, radio.

But I think we want to be ruled. We want God to be ineffable. We want love to mysteriously endure after our physical presence is gone. We want to know that neutrinos are moving through us and continuing on, unchanged forever. Everything we can see has an explanation and an end. And we don't want everything to end.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, Julie Snyder, and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margie Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Starlee Kine.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who wishes to take a moment to send this message to his masters back in the Soviet Union.

Morpheus

Bravo, Delta, Two, Niner, One, Charlie, Foxtrot.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.