Transcript

293:

A Little Bit of Knowledge
Transcript

Originally aired 07.22.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/293

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK America, prepare to have your life change for the better. There is a situation that you find yourself in all the time. And it has been unclear what to say or do in that situation until now.

Nancy Updike

We heard about it, and it was like Post-its. It was just all of the sudden something that you needed to use all the time. It just explained so much.

Ira Glass

That's Nancy Updike, one of the regular contributors to our radio show. And she tells the story this way. A couple years ago, friends of hers were traveling in Europe, and they are walking through these old buildings. And these people do not know anything special about architecture. But you know how it is when you're a tourist. They're walking through these buildings, and they're looking at the doorways and the tiles. And they decide that they think that this one building has a very Moorish influence. And they're pointing out details, and saying the Moors this, and the Moors that. And finally, one of them turns to the other and says, you know what? We sound like we're in a magazine, a magazine called Modern Jackass.

Modern Jackass. Of course, there is no Modern Jackass. But ever since I heard that story, I found myself referring to Modern Jackass all the time. It's incredibly useful, and it could be useful to you, to back out of all kinds of awkward conversational situations.

Nancy Updike

The thing about Modern Jackass is, it's usually not something about which you know nothing. It's something about which you know a little bit, enough to sort of get yourself into trouble.

Ira Glass

Like you read an article.

Nancy Updike

Exactly, or something on the web.

Ira Glass

Just last weekend, I was out for breakfast with some friends. And we got into this conversation about these people who do caloric restriction. Have you heard about this? Apparently, there are these people who believe that if you eat a lot less, it can make you live longer. As so we're talking about this, and somebody's explaining the cells of your body go through all this wear and tear when you actually digest food. And before you know it, one of my friends-- somebody who knows nothing about biology, actually-- starts talking about mitochondria. Mitochondria. And maybe he had a little bit of knowledge about this. But it was totally Modern Jackass. Modern Jackass, the medical edition, which Nancy says that she finds herself in quite a bit.

Nancy Updike

My mother sends me information about partially hydrogenated oils. And then when somebody says, wait, why is partially hydrogenated oil bad again? I say, well, it's an unstable compound, which it is. It's oil to which hydrogen has been added in order to make it solid at room temperature. That I know. That's a fact.

Ira Glass

And why would that be bad, Nancy?

Nancy Updike

Well, that's where we get into Modern Jackass territory. It's unstable in your body. There's an extra hydrogen atom that can interact with things.

Ira Glass

Oxygen and form water.

Nancy Updike

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Having no information, that's one thing. That's pure. The trouble is when you have a little bit of information about the problems with electronic voting machines, what it really means, the battle between carbs and protein. It's hard for some people not to take the tiny pigment contained in that tiny bit of information and paint a vast canvas of the entire world. It is exactly the problem that people encounter in every story in our program today.

It's This American Life, from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. Today we bring you four stories of people taking a smidgen, a tiny smidgen of understanding, and stretching it far past the breaking point. Because as everybody knows, all over the world, a little bit of knowledge can be a very entertaining thing. We have Dan Savage matching wits with a six year old boy. Stay with us.

Act One. Small Thoughts In Big Brains.

Ira Glass

Act One, When Small Thoughts Meet Big Brains. We have this story about people functioning with a tiny little bit of knowledge, long past the point that you think they would, from Alex Blumberg.

Alex Blumberg

I can reconstruct the events that led me to one of the most embarrassing conversations of my adult life. The chain starts back when I was 11 or 12, and I first heard the term Nielsen family. I was probably listening to some adults talk. And from their conversation I gathered that networks consulted Nielsen families to find out how popular a television show was. But that didn't make sense. Why would they only ask people named Nielsen which shows they liked. I started thinking.

I knew that when they figured things like this out, they didn't ask everybody, they just asked a small percentage of people, and then extrapolated. I think I figured they had done some research and found that the name Nielsen-- because it was a common name maybe, and it seemed to cut across class and economic lines-- actually came pretty close to a representative sample. I knew this wasn't the way they measured public opinion now, but it seemed like the Nielsen surveys had been around for a while. And I figured they were just a holdover from a more primitive, less statistically rigorous time. After that, I really didn't think about it again. Or if I did, it was only with a mild curiosity. I wonder why TV still does it that way?

Fast forward 20 years. I was talking with a friend of mine, who was telling me about her friend, who had been selected to be a Nielsen family. And I said to her, isn't that weird that they're all named Nielsen? My friend looked at me for what seemed like a long time. Somewhere during her very long pause-- because of the very long pause, in fact-- I realized, of course they're not all named Nielsen. That makes no sense at all. At the time of this conversation, I was 34 years old, and I couldn't believe I had gotten this far without ever stopping to think it through. It made me wonder what else I'd missed, and if this has ever happened to anyone besides me.

Jodie Mace

When I was a kid, and I would see the school crossing signs, and there's the picture of the little kids walking, and it would say school x-ing And I thought that the x-ing was a word. And I pronounced it zing.

Alex Blumberg

Turns out, I'm not alone. I've been talking to people about this for weeks. And there are a lot of us out there-- like me and this woman, Jodie Mace-- carting around our childhood beliefs well into adulthood. Jodie thought there were lots of zings, deer zings, railroad zings. That makes sense.

Jodie Mace

When I was in my 20s, and I was walking into work, and about 10 geese walked in front of me on the sidewalk. So I just turned to my coworker and casually said, it looks like they should have a zing sign there for the geese. There was a sort of long, awkward silence. And I thought that he was thinking, you know, that really is a good idea. But instead, he finally said, you know, zing isn't a word.

Alex Blumberg

In talking to people, I found out that a lot of these lingering misconceptions involve mispronunciation. And often, the mispronunciation survives into adulthood because the mistake just sounds better, or makes more sense.

Jodie Mace

It should be a word, and it should be zing. You don't want a kid to walk slowly across the crossing. If he's smart, he's going to zing.

Alex Blumberg

Consider the word misled. I talked to three people, including my own father, who used to pronounce it mizeled. All three believed it was the past tense of a nonexistent verb, mizel, which means to deceive or to mislead. There's another guy I spoke to who thought, well into his early 20s, that the word quesadilla was Spanish for what's the deal?

Most of the common childhood myths, like that babies come from storks, get corrected sooner or later. They're not obscure enough to sneak into adulthood unscrutinized. But occasionally, even a very popular childhood myth can make it through, like unicorns.

Kristy Kruger

In my head, a unicorn wasn't really any different than a zebra.

Alex Blumberg

This is Kristy Kruger.

Kristy Kruger

I mean, in terms of believability, I think the unicorn is really ahead of the dinosaur.

Alex Blumberg

What do you mean?

Kristy Kruger

Well, I mean, when you think about a dinosaur from a kid's perspective, a dinosaur is these really large, monstrous animals roaming the Earth. And then you have a unicorn, which is basically just a horse with a horn.

Alex Blumberg

As Kristy Kruger grew up, she says that if she ever thought about unicorns, they were on a grassy plane somewhere in Africa, drinking from a watering hole with the wildebeest and the impala. And then one night, she found herself in a conversation at a party.

Kristy Kruger

It was about a group of five to seven people, kind of standing around the keg, just talking. And somehow a discussion of endangered species came up, in which I posed the question, is the unicorn endangered or extinct? And basically, there was a big gap of silence.

Alex Blumberg

As you might be gathering, at some point in all these stories, you come to a big gap of silence.

Kristy Kruger

And then everybody laughed. And then that laughter was followed by more silence when they realized I wasn't laughing. And I was like, yeah, oh God, unicorns aren't real? Oh no.

Alex Blumberg

Sometimes a ridiculous belief will survive into adulthood, and it's our parents who are to blame. Robin didn't think there was anything strange about the way she was raised. She lived together with her sister and her parents in a nice house in the suburbs. She went to school like the other kids, watched TV and did her homework. And she ate the exact same thing for dinner every night of her life, baked chicken.

Robin

It was like Monday, chicken. Tuesday, chicken. Wednesday, chicken. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, chicken, chicken chicken, chicken, chicken, every night of my life until I left for college. At the end of the first week of college-- when everyone's desperately trying to fit in, and it's important that you act cool and sophisticated and whatever-- everyone begins complaining about the food that we're being served. What was the hard stuff in the sloppy joe? What was that mystery meat? What animal did it come from?

And I'm looking at these people like they are crazy. The variety we are getting here every night. Every night there's a different meal. One night it's mac and cheese. One night it's mystery meat. One night it's sloppy joe. I was like, how can you criticize? I mean, it's a testament to what great chefs they must be that they can make a different meal every single night of the week. And they just kind of stared. And they're like, what? And I'm like, what, what?

What's running through my head is, wait a minute, these people are implying that they had variation in their meal plan for their entire life. It's mind-bending. I mean, I don't care what I learned throughout college. This is the revelation that has stuck with me. This is what I've learned. All of a sudden like, holy God.

Alex Blumberg

When Robin came home for Thanksgiving that year, and confronted her mother with the startling fact that everyone else ate things besides chicken growing up, her mother just shrugged her shoulders and said, you liked chicken. Robin had to concede the point. Even when they'd gone out to restaurants, Robin ordered chicken. They all had.

Here's one more. When Harriet Lerner was a girl, her family was going through some lean years. There were two kids, the house needed repairs. There wasn't much money for holiday gifts. Harriet was seven and she wanted a bike. Her sister Susan was 12. She wanted a set of encyclopedias. But when they came downstairs on Christmas morning, there were only two small boxes waiting for them.

Harriet Lerner

What was inside them-- and we both had exactly the same gift-- were these real ugly, metal tissue holders painted black, with these corny red and yellow roses. They were painted with these cheesy looking red and yellow roses. And I looked at my tissue box, and I started to cry. And I looked at my big sister Susan, and I thought, of course she was going to cry too. And she looked like maybe she was going to cry. But then she sort of put on a big smile. And then she told me that the boxes were painted by trained monkeys.

Alex Blumberg

The box became Harriet's prized possession. She kept it on display in her room through elementary school, through high school. Her friends asked her about it, she'd say, oh yeah, it was painted by trained monkeys. Nobody ever challenged her on it, maybe because she believed it herself so completely. And then one day, she was home from college, back in the house where she grew up.

Harriet Lerner

And I'm going through some papers, or maybe I was snooping through Susan's papers, and I found a composition, and it had her name on it. And she had written it in high school. And it was called "The Tissue Box Story." So I sat down on the floor of Susan's bedroom to read this composition. And Susan told the story just as I told it, except that she wrote how she felt when she saw me crying. And how she then looked at my parents, and saw that my mother was about to cry too. And how she looked at the tissue boxes, and then she remembered that my father had a friend who made them. And she knew how much my parents hated taking charity.

And suddenly, even though she was about to cry, she forced herself to smile. And she pretended those boxes were painted by trained monkeys. And of course, I didn't know any of this. But the funny thing she wrote in her composition is that she just rushed upstairs and started crying all over her pillow. And she wasn't really sad about the gift really, is what she said in the composition. She wasn't sure why she was crying, except that it was sort of like she had volunteered to be a grown up before she was even ready for it.

Up until that moment, I had never thought to question my sister's story. I had never subjected it to the scrutiny of a grown up mind. I mean, I was 20. I don't know, I had this tissue box that was painted by trained monkeys. And then it wasn't painted by trained monkeys, really.

Alex Blumberg

Up until reading that story, Harriet thought that her sisters lies had been only to torment her, like the time Harriet swallowed an apple seed, and her big sister convinced her that she had an apple tree growing inside her. She had always been jealous of her sister, always wanted to be the big sister. But reading her sister's story that day made her realize how responsible her sister felt for her, and for their entire family, and how there were benefits to being the baby. It was good to learn all that.

But the vision of the lie-- that we live in a world where monkeys can be trained to paint-- is hard to give up.

Harriet Lerner

And really, it's just that I can still picture this tissue box, and how much I loved it, this tissue box painted by trained monkeys.

Alex Blumberg

I know what she means. For me, there's something appealingly weird about a world where only people who happened to have been born with the name Nielsen get to decide what goes on television. And not long after the day that Jodie Mace's coworker set her straight about the word zing, she found herself on the opposite side of the exact same situation. She was having a conversation with another coworker, and he asked her if elves were real. Elves? Like that live in the forest, she asked, with the pointy toes? He nodded. She paused. And then she said, yeah, of course they are.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "ZING ZING, ZOOM ZOOM" BY PERRY COMO]

Act Two. And Daddy Makes Three.

Ira Glass

Act Two, And Daddy Makes Three. Around the time in 2004 that gay couples were starting to marry in San Francisco, and gay marriage became a hot national issue in the presidential race, Dan Savage found that his own family became very interested in the subject, but in ways that seemed to defy every stereotype. Dan's mom-- a nice Catholic lady from Chicago's North Side-- wanted him to marry his longtime boyfriend, Terry. Dan's dad-- a Republican and former Chicago cop-- felt exactly the same way. And they felt this way for the most traditional reasons-- commitment, love.

Meanwhile, Dan and Terry, the actual couple, the actual homosexuals in the story, they weren't even sure if they wanted to get married. And there was one person in the family who was adamantly opposed to gay marriage. Here's Dan.

Dan Savage

Even my mother has spoken to him, but he refuses to budge. Boys don't marry boys, he insists, and girls don't marry girls. He has also made it clear that if Terry and I ever married, he would refuse to attend the ceremony. Who is this stubborn relative? My father, the family's sole Republican? Terry's born again Christian brother? My sister's Texan boyfriend? No, try our six year old adopted son, DJ.

One of his first pronouncements on the issue came when he was just four, when he announced from the back seat of the car that Terry and I didn't really love each other. Why not, we asked. Because you're not married, DJ explained calmly. People who don't love each other don't get married. And since you're not married and can't get married, that means you can't love each other, not really.

We traced the circular logic back to its source, a five year old girl. When her parents divorced, they told their only daughter they couldn't stay married because they weren't in love anymore. These words bounced around the little rock tumbler that is her mind until an opportunity to wound another child presented itself to her. Her parents weren't in love anymore and couldn't stay married, she told DJ. And since his parents can't get married, we can't love each other.

We have done our best to root this notion out, explaining to DJ that marriage is a promise two people make each other. And that while most men marry women, and most women marry men, men can marry men and women can marry women. We've made a point of showing him same sex wedding announcements in the Style section in the Sunday New York Times. We watched some same sex weddings in the evening news. And after two years of exposure to the liberal media, DJ now concedes that we could get married. But he nevertheless insist that we shouldn't.

If we do get married, he insists that he's not coming to the wedding. He'll come to the party after the wedding, provided there is cake, but there is no way he is going to the ceremony. He agrees that we can love each other, but he insists that boys don't marry boys, and girls don't marry girls, and no gay wedding announcements in The New York Times are going to change his mind. It's odd to reflect that my 64 year old Catholic mom-- raised to view marriage as a sacrament-- believes marriage is about love and commitment, not about genitals. But my six year old son-- raised by a gay couple, and not having seen the inside of a church since the day he was baptized-- somehow came to believe that marriage is about matched sets of boys and girls. How'd that happen?

DJ's traditional position on gender is not something he learned at home. While he was always into all the traditional boy things-- cars, trucks, guns-- until he was four, the boy things he liked were just the things he happened to like. He liked guns because he liked guns, not because boys were supposed to like guns. Then one day we packed DJ off to preschool. The teachers at his progressive Montessori school would sooner feed children tacks than force boys to do boy things and girls to do girl things. No, it was the other children who indoctrinated DJ into the world of gender expectations.

From day one, it was the boys versus the girls. And there wasn't much the adults could do about it. When the children weren't engaged in Talmudic discussions about which toys or activities were male or female, the boys were chasing the girls around the yard during recess. And what did DJ learn from the other children about marriage? It was a boy and girl thing, his classmates all agreed. And it wasn't an agreeable thing to the boys. Marriage was a weapon, something the girls would threaten to do to the boys if they ever actually caught them. To turn the tables, the girls only had to threaten to marry the boys. Marriage was nuclear cooties. Once the threat was issued, the boys would turn tail and run, the girls chasing after them now, like a bunch of magnetized pinballs whose charge had suddenly reversed.

So to DJ, it didn't make any sense that his two dads, both boys, would contemplate marrying each other. Boys weren't supposed to be interested in marriage anymore than they were supposed to be interested in dolls, or dresses, or fairy tales about princesses. Marriage was a girl thing. And since there weren't any girls in our family, why was this subject even coming up?

Grandma thinks Terry and I should get married, I told DJ one day in the car. Look at me, Daddy, he responded from the backseat. I twisted around and watched as DJ attempted to roll his eyes. Eye rolling is an important interpersonal skill that DJ hasn't quite mastered yet. Instead of rolling his eyes, he looks up and to the left, and slowly rolls his head around his fixed eyes. Are you trying to tell me something, DJ? You know, he answered. I know, but Terry doesn't. He can't see you. So I'll have to tell him. Terry, when I looked back, DJ was nodding his head, which I guess means he wants us to get married.

No, DJ said. Rolling my eyes means I don't want you to get married. Why not? Dad, boys don't marry boys. So should we marry some girls, Terry said. No, DJ said. Why not? Aren't boys supposed to marry girls? DJ thought about this for a second. Then he explained that we weren't the kind of boys who marry girls. Since we loved each other, and since we were his dads, we had to live together forever. Married people live together, and we wouldn't be able to do that, since we had to live with each other and be his dads forever. And so we couldn't get married, because then we would have to live with the girls we married and not with each other, which we couldn't do because we were his dads and had to live together forever, because we were his dads.

A few weeks later, DJ woke up in the middle of the night with an earache. I got some Children's Tylenol into him, and we curled up together on the couch in the living room, waiting for the medicine to do its job. We talked about skateboarding. We talked about school. We talked about the cosmic injustice that earaches represent. Then we talked about sex. Dad? I want to be gay with Joshua when I grow up. It was a radical change of topic, but it wasn't a bolt from the blue. DJ had been asking questions lately about what exactly gay meant. He knew he had gay parents, and that gay marriage was always in the news, and that if his parents married, it would be one of those gay marriages.

Despite our best efforts to explain what gayness was without popping in an old Chi Chi LaRue video, DJ was still a little fuzzy on the concept. Apparently, he had concluded that being gay meant living with your best friend. I didn't want to tell DJ that he couldn't be gay when he grew up, but I didn't believe he was going to be gay when he grew up. As best anyone can tell, most kids, over 90%, will grow up to be straight, whether they're raised by gay or straight parents. I almost told him he wouldn't be gay. He plays with trucks. He likes Power Rangers. He threw a perfect spiral the first time he picked up a football. He was throwing it to me and I dropped it, naturally. The kid is straight.

But on the off chance that he wasn't going to be straight, I started naming all the couples we knew, gay and straight. And DJ joined in. There was Eddie and Mickey, Billy and Kelly, Laura and Joe, Grandma and Gramps, Mark and Diane, Shirley and Rose, Brad and Rachel, Nancy and Barrack, David and Jake, Amy and Sonya, Henry and Beth, Maureen and Ed. Most of the men we know are with? I asked. Girls, DJ said. That's because most men wind up falling in love with women when they grow up. And most women wind up falling in love with men. Those men are called straight. Men who fall in love with men, like me and Daddy, are called gay.

Am I going to be gay? I don't know, DJ, but probably not. Most men aren't gay. You could be gay when you grow up, but it's much more likely that you're going to be straight, like Uncle Billy, or Uncle Eddie, or Tim, or Brad. But I want to be gay, like you and Dad. Ah, I thought, somewhere a fundamentalist Christian's heart is breaking. This is precisely what they worry about when they condemn gay parents. Our kids will want to be gay. They will want to emulate their parents and adopt their sexuality. If you believe, against all evidence, that sexuality is a matter of choice, it may be a rational fear. But sexuality isn't a matter of choice. It's an inborn trait. And DJ could no more choose to be gay like his parents than I could choose to be straight, like mine.

It's not a decision you get to make, I said. It's not a decision I got to make. It's a decision your heart makes. When? When you're older, I said. One day, your heart will let you know whether you're going to be the kind of man who falls in love with a woman or a man. There was a long silence, and I thought DJ had fallen asleep. He was curled up next to me, resting his head against my side, and I couldn't see his face. I stayed very still.

Grandma says you're supposed to marry the person you love, DJ suddenly said. He hadn't fallen asleep. He'd just been quietly working through something. That's right, I said, Grandma does say that all the time. But you love me, and we're not going to get married. Grown up love is a special kind of love. People don't fall in that special kind of love with their sisters or their mothers or their sons. There's something in your heart that makes you go out into the world and find someone new, someone you've never met before, and that's the person you fall in love with. Why? Because that's how new families are made. And one day you'll meet the person you want to make a new family with, and that's the person you're supposed to marry.

Why? Because marriage is a promise that you make to that other person, a promise to stay in love with them forever, to be related forever, so that you'll always be together. Did Henry's parents fall out of love? Henry was a friend of DJ's whose parents were in the middle of an ugly divorce. Yes, they did. So they broke their promise? Yes, I guess they did. DJ got quiet again. Do you and Daddy want to get married? Sometimes we do, I said, but sometimes we don't. Grandma wants us to get married, you don't.

I changed my mind. Why? You and dad have to stay together forever. We will, I said. We love each other and always will. DJ sat up on the couch and looked me in the eye. I want you and Daddy to promise, to pinky promise, to seriously and forever promise, and no breaking your promise. You want us to get married then, I said. Yes. And there it was, my reward for a sleepless night. My son was giving me his blessing to marry. I'll tell Terry, I said. We'll see what Daddy says.

Ira Glass

Dan Savage, reading from his book The Commitment, in which his mom and his six year old son wage a battle of ideas. His great, great podcast is available at thestranger.com. Coming up, baby Einstein takes on the real Einstein. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Sucker Mc-squared.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, A Little Bit of Knowledge, taking a small bit of information and drawing on it. And coming to conclusions and inferences is, of course, a sign of intelligence. We all do that. It's just sometimes, it gets a little complicated. We've arrived at Act Three. Act Three, Sucker MC-Squared. We have this story from Robert Andrew Powell.

Robert Andrew Powell

Bob Berenz didn't come into my life as a physicist. I knew him originally as the goalie on my hockey team. I'd see him every Wednesday night. We'd play hockey for an hour or so, and then he'd go back to his house, and his family, and his job as an electrician. He retired from the team a couple years ago. He was 48, a bit too old to be stopping slap shots. Away from the rink and with extra time on his hands, he hatched an idea for an invention, a superconductor of some sort.

Bob's a tinkerer, great with car engines, computers, any kind of electronics. But to build something as ambitious as a superconductor, he needed to go back and study basic physics, something he hadn't done since high school.

Bob Berenz

So I sat down, I got out my books and started reading. Of course, I never got to the invention because I found something else, something that I couldn't understand, couldn't resolve. And I think something much more important, because it's something every Nobel Prize-winning physicist missed.

Robert Andrew Powell

That something, he said, was the most significant development in physics in a century.

Bob Berenz

I discovered that physics is fundamentally operating off an incorrect principle. And the principle is that e equals mc squared. That's wrong, without question. It gives you wrong answers every time you use it. I guarantee it.

Robert Andrew Powell

Bob believed he'd disproved Einstein's theory of relativity, and that's why he got back in touch with me. I'm a journalist. Bob said he needed my help drafting a book about his findings. He said the book would make him famous. He said it would make us both rich. Bob suggested we call the book E Does Not Equal MC Squared.

I met up with Bob at his small yellow house in South Miami. On his bookshelves, alongside hockey trophies and framed photos of his daughters, stand copies of Physics Demystified, Trigonometry Demystified, and Calculus Demystified. Physics is simple, he says. It's the physics community, academia that mystifies him.

Bob Berenz

All right, in this point I have to be completely honest. I did write a paper early on, and I submitted it to a physics site. And it was summarily rejected out of hand. But I did learn an important lesson, that physicists and what's being done by them is very complicated, very mathematically intensive. What I've got is none of that, so it completely, almost in reverse, goes over their heads.

OK, we're going to have an arrow. This arrow represents force. I'll put a big letter F there.

Robert Andrew Powell

In a nutshell, Bob believes Einstein misunderstood the relationship between energy and time. Bob insists the error is self-explanatory and obvious. But whenever he's tried to show me his reasoning, I don't see it. I can't tell if I'm confused or if Bob's confused.

Bob Berenz

--times its velocity. It actually should be mass times speed. It's a mathematical thing, it's no big deal. Unless you're a physicist, then you'll focus on it, to the exclusion of the truth. So if we look at the mass times the speed--

Robert Andrew Powell

The only physics class Bob ever took was in high school. After graduating, Bob audited a couple college courses, but they weren't for him. Last summer, right before he called me, Bob had decided to give himself a year to find a wider audience for his discovery, a full year, free from electrical work. His wife, Celia, supported this sabbatical. She earned enough money in her corporate job to keep them afloat.

Celia Berenz

What if it's totally true, and I didn't support him? I mean, would I feel like a schmuck or what? I mean, really, it's like, so go for it.

Robert Andrew Powell

You can ask Celia if she believes Bob has disproved Einstein. But for her, that's not the point.

Celia Berenz

He felt strongly about it. It's like, just because I don't understand it doesn't mean that it's not real. He's done all this research, and he sits here and does all this studying, and he reads all these books, and he does these tests. I mean, he's the most disciplined individual I have ever known. Just because I don't understand it, doesn't mean a damn thing.

Robert Andrew Powell

Bob's my friend. He was my goalie. I didn't want to be the guy to kill his dream either, and like his wife, I didn't feel qualified to disprove him. Maybe he had stumbled onto something simple and profound. Electrician disproves theory of relativity, that would make for a pretty good book. I told Bob I'd run his work past a trained physicist. This turned out to be more difficult than I had expected.

A scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory replied to my email with a curt, please don't waste my time again. The head of the Physics Department at the University of Miami dropped Bob's research paper like it was radioactive. He receives one of these papers each week, he said. It turns out, there is a whole community of people out there who also claim to have disproved Einstein's theory. So persistent are these outsiders that John Baez, a Professor of Mathematics in California, felt compelled to publish the crackpot index. It's an online quiz you can take to see if you are, by his definition, a crackpot.

There are 35 items in the index, including 10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein. 10 points for each claim that the theory of relativity is fundamentally misguided. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a quote, "paradigm shift." 10 points for each statement along the lines of, I'm not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right. Here's Baez.

John Baez

I'm sure that I've seen at least 100 different crackpot theories. I will get emails from people asking me to help them work out the details of their theory. And so it's sort of like saying I'm good at music, but I just don't know what the notes are supposed to be in this piece. If you could just write down the notes, I could come up with a great piece of music.

Robert Andrew Powell

He told me about a few of the more infamous crackpots. One guy who calls himself Ludwig Von Plutonium believes the solar system consists of a single radioactive atom. Another was Alexander Abian.

John Baez

He was a math professor at the University of Iowa who, in his later years, came up with the theory that all the diseases on Earth are due to the pernicious influence of the moon, and so that we should destroy the moon, in fact.

Robert Andrew Powell

Destroy the moon?

John Baez

Yeah, we have to blow it up to prevent the spread of AIDS. And he also had an equation that was sort of like e equals mc squared, something about how energy gets used up pushing time forwards.

Robert Andrew Powell

Why do people do this?

John Baez

I think they do it because they really want to understand the universe. And they have very noble, albeit grandiose, motivations, trying to do what us regular physicists also are trying to do for our own noble and grandiose motivations. And I think what distinguishes them from physicists who can make a useful contribution is that they don't want to be somebody whose epitaph says that they tightened the screws on a particle accelerator that made a great experiment. They want to be Einstein. And most of us can't be Einstein. And that's the trouble.

Robert Andrew Powell

When I told Bob about the index, he had already seen it on the internet, had taken the test, and had concluded that, technically, he's a crackpot. But that never even gave him pause.

Bob Berenz

There is a climate within the physics community-- because they have to go through so many years of study, and such tough mathematics, and this and that-- that anyone who comes into the zone and hasn't gone through the same steps that they have, is looked on with a little bit of disdain. I'll tell you what, I do challenge any real physicist to stand with me on a blackboard, and we'll go over this.

Robert Andrew Powell

Eventually, months later, I did find someone, a real physicist who was willing to take Bob's challenge. I first met Dr. Brant Watson at his office in Miami. On his wall hung a portrait of Albert Einstein, certificates recognizing several patents, and curiously, a poster of some Victoria's Secret lingerie models. Dr. Watson holds a PhD in nuclear physics. He says he enjoys hearing new ideas, and was genuinely interested in reading Bob's paper, which he did. When he finished, he handed me a Kit Kat bar as I explained that Bob had invested close to 12 months in his research.

Dr. Brant Watson

Really?

Robert Andrew Powell

Yeah.

Dr. Brant Watson

What he came up with took a year?

Robert Andrew Powell

He's been working on it for a year.

Dr. Brant Watson

That's too bad. He should have talked to me a long time before he got started. You can tell when somebody is worth listening to, real quick. I sat in a class at Florida State with Don Robson, who was teaching theoretical physics. And I remember one time, my jaw just dropped, like in a cartoon, but it dropped without me making it do it. How stunned I was to see this beautiful formula that he was writing on the board. And I said, my God, that one formula expresses everything, but I know I could never do it myself. Well Bob, with what he wrote, out of the question.

Robert Andrew Powell

Dr. Watson said Bob's work was riddled with the kind of mistakes a freshman physics student would make in his first week of class. No, he corrected, they were the kind of mistakes a freshman sociology student taking a physics elective would make. He said Bob's biggest error was repeatedly confusing momentum with energy, which apparently, in physics, is a big deal.

I relayed this to Bob, thinking that would be the end of it. Yet Bob didn't waver. He remained so earnest and so obstinate that I arranged for Bob and Dr. Watson to meet face to face. I thought it would be a quick meeting, that Dr. Watson would turn Bob around. I was wrong.

Bob Berenz

I do not say momentum is the same thing as kinetic energy.

Dr. Brant Watson

Oh no? You did about 10 times in that paper. And I marked every one of them. No, no, no, 10 times in your paper.

Bob Berenz

Well, I don't want to get into that part of it, because--

Dr. Brant Watson

That is a part of it. That's what we do it into first. As physicists, the first thing we check is the units. If the units are wrong, then apples equals oranges, which we don't accept. That's a very efficient way to find out if somebody's wrong or not. That's how we do it.

Bob Berenz

I understand that. Now that's not the issue. The issue is--

Robert Andrew Powell

Accord was never reached. Bob and Dr. Watson's frustration with each other devolved into name calling.

Dr. Brant Watson

In fact, I have to mention this. Under the hallmark of schizophrenia is, they get a good idea, and then they never investigate whether it's right or not, OK? So this is an ideation.

Robert Andrew Powell

Are you calling Bob a schizophrenic?

Dr. Brant Watson

No, I'm telling you have to watch out for this kind of thing, because some people may think that.

Robert Andrew Powell

Finally, Bob, defiant as always, volleyed back with what all along has been his main point: e equals mc squared doesn't make sense because it's difficult to understand. A fundamental law of physics should be self-explanatory.

Bob Berenz

Well, the only thing I can see with physics is you are getting way too complicated. I mean, you have to go to school forever. You have to know this outrageous amount of calculus. When I see all that, I know that physics has gone off the rails.

Dr. Brant Watson

Let me tell you why it looks so difficult. There comes a point at which you can see beyond the gap, that you'll never cross the gap. You just can't do it. No matter how hard you try, you can't do it. Especially when you got to the conclusion Einstein was wrong, it should be e equals mc, I guess, instead of mc squared. If you used mc, there would have been no A-bomb on Hiroshima. We don't have radios, we don't have lasers, we don't have atomic bombs, we don't have anything. No cellphone, no microwave, no nothing, man. We don't have anything.

Robert Andrew Powell

Back at Bob's house, we talked about it. Bob was fuming. Nothing Dr. Watson had said had changed his mind.

Robert Andrew Powell

How come Brant can't persuade you that you're wrong?

Bob Berenz

Well, this is not really fair, but I'm going to say it anyway. It's like he was talking the party line. He didn't strike me as being all that bright. I know he has a couple of patents, and he's this big professor, and it's probably not fair for me to say that, but I'm not claiming to be this incredible genius in this one area. It's very simple what I ran into. And I need some help to get it put into a forum where people can understand it. But it really isn't that difficult.

Robert Andrew Powell

I understand Bob's stubbornness this way. Since he was a kid, he was going off and reading books and figuring out things on his own. When he was 12, he taught himself how to construct an FM transmitter from spare parts, building the coil himself. He is a self-taught auto mechanic, and self-taught television repairman too. Almost everything he knows about electrical work he learned from books. He has based his whole life on the idea that he can figure out things on his own, technical stuff that, to most of us, seems just as hard as e equals mc squared. No wonder he thinks he can trust his own judgment on this one. It's a hard habit to break. It's hard for him to see himself any other way.

As the end of Bob's sabbatical neared, I had asked his wife, Celia, about a possibility Bob wouldn't even acknowledge.

Robert Andrew Powell

What would it mean, in the big picture, if Bob is totally wrong?

Celia Berenz

I think it would be a huge blow to his ego. It wouldn't change anything for me, as far as how I feel about him. He'd still be Bob, and he'd still be the man I love, and I'd still be in love with him. You have got to love him, man. It's either you love him or hate them. It's like he can be an arrogant son of a bitch. You live with the good and the bad. There's so much more to him than that, than that uncombed and unkempt hair, and the fact that he doesn't keep doctors' appointments, or make them, which makes me the nagging, bitching wife, but that's OK. It's part of the package.

Robert Andrew Powell

Bob has returned to his old job, electrifying houses and office buildings. At home, he set aside his physics books to focus on the wiring system on his Carmengia, a clamshell of a car he's rebuilding by himself, from the tires up. He says he's trying to take an engine designed in the 1930s and get it working for the 21st century. It's an ambitious project, complex, challenging, and totally over my head. I have no doubt he'll pull it off.

Ira Glass

Robert Andrew Powell is the author of the book We Own This Game about youth football. He's in Boulder, Colorado.

[MUSIC - "MODERN PHYSICS IN FIVE EASY VERSES" BY BRUCE LESNICK]

Act Four. The Art Of Adult Conversation.

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Art of Adult Conversation. We end our program today with this fable of the consequences of saying more than you truly understand, from Alexa Junge.

Alexa Junge

I know everybody loves their grandmother, but I really, really loved my grandmother. I still dream about her kitchen. From the time I could ride my bike to her house, pretty much every day I'd pedal over after school, drink Fresca, and listen while Grandma Maxine, mostly known as Mac, would hold court.

While all the other kids were getting high and listening to Marshall Crenshaw, I was sitting in my grandmother's kitchen, eating Christmas colored, coconut covered ice cream snowballs, while she dropped ashes and pontificated about life in New York in the '20s and '30s, her work designing costumes for the WPA Theatre, her views about sex, communists, sex with communists. I don't know if she was as progressive as she pretended to be around me, but it was my grandmother who told me, sleep with a bunch of men, so that when the right one comes along, you'll know what you're doing.

That I didn't have a boyfriend was of little consequence, since for all intents and purposes, my grandmother was my boyfriend. Sometimes at night, after my parents were asleep, my brother would bang on my door and snarl at me to quit hogging the phone. Then, as he left, he'd say, oh, and say hi to Grandma for me.

Our bond was so strong, I was moved to write Joni Mitchell influenced ditties about it, which I would play and sing loudly on the piano in our tiny house. Actually, I had written a whole anthology of songs about adolescent yearning, which I scratched into my musical notebook. Songs from this period included "Drifter," "Rainbow Blues," "Where Is My Rainbow?" and then of course, the aforementioned testament to grandma love, "For A Friend," which went a little something like this.

[SINGING] Coffee and ginger snaps, you give to me a chance to be myself. Feathers and silver rings, old cuckoo clocks, and quiet talks together.

That I never actually performed my composition for her was of little matter, since it was pretty much common knowledge that I was her favorite, and in case you had any questions, she was mine.

Around the time I was thirteen, I started to become aware of a rich history of favoritism in my family. My mom, the story went, had been my Grandfather Marvin's favorite. He took her to museums, taught her to paint, exposed her to Ogden Nash, Arthur Miller, made her play the cello like he did. And because my mother was taken under my grandfather's wing, my uncle came to belong to my grandmother, just like I did.

Because my grandfather died when I was six, I never really knew him. He was a beloved teacher. There is no question he was charismatic and multi-talented. The thing is, I'm not exactly sure how nice he was to his wife. Maybe it's not even true, but I remember my father saying how dismissive he could be of my grandmother, how much she blossomed after his death. So as far as I could tell, the Oedipal brouhaha that made it difficult for my mother and grandmother to get along had also paved the way for me. I was getting to have the relationship with my grandmother that my mother never had.

And to my mom's enormous credit, she never even told me about the trouble between them until I started to see some tension and made the mind-bending leap that relationships are complex, and things aren't always what they seem. Suddenly I started to wonder if me being Grandma's favorite wasn't just about me being her favorite. Maybe I was a pawn in some kind of game. Grandma Maxine didn't get Mom, so instead she went for me. Maybe I was just a chump. I needed to get the bottom of it right away.

There wasn't any plan. And even now, I have to strain to remember what I was thinking on that day, because I wasn't. It was a spur of the moment decision. I really can't explain what happened. I know I went to her house after school, but instead of our usual meeting in the kitchen, I crossed into the living room. We chit-chatted, like grownups. My grandmother's ash dropped. She caught it in her hand. Then I launched in.

I was thinking, if my husband spent all of his time with our daughter and acted like he liked her more than me, that would be a pretty hard pill to swallow. I would probably hold on tight to my son and treat him like he was my favorite. I remember she sat down and got herself an ashtray. For 45 minutes, we talked about her marriage. I offered up my special insights about how her distant relationship with her father probably contributed to her dependence on my Grandfather Marvin. Maybe that's why she stopped working after having such a promising career.

I remember feeling exhilarated, like I was onto something, mapping out a new world. Since I was now a member of the big kids psychology club, I could kick it up a notch. In fact, I had to. Are you very sad about your father's funeral? You do realize he's dead and he's never coming back, don't you? Don't you?

She wasn't resistant or defensive. She answered here and there, blew smoke rings. In fact, she seemed utterly unfazed, so much so, that when we had finished our tete-a-tete, I went off to roller skate and didn't come back until a few hours later when I was either hungry or wanted a ride home. I rang the doorbell. No answer, so I went around back.

Through the screen door, I could see Maxine was sitting in the dark living room in her bathrobe. I had the distinct impression that when she had heard me at the door, she hadn't moved a muscle. How long she had been sitting there I couldn't tell, but she was sniffling and blowing her nose. I went inside. She apologized for not answering the door. What's going on, I said. Aren't you feeling well? She responded simply, some of the things you said upset me.

Oh, she'd been sniffling because she had been crying. I didn't recognize it because I'd never seen her cry. It was so out of character I didn't even know she could cry, let alone be so upset by something I said. The terrifying thing is that somewhere I think I had even expected my grandmother to congratulate me for being so clever in cracking the codes. But while I was tossing off all these adult words and ideas, I didn't really understand what they would mean to her. I don't know, I was just kicking it on up. I just wanted to share. In fact, what I'd done is more along the lines of getting a sawed off shotgun, shooting willy-nilly into her house, and then coming back 20 minutes later and asking if she had redecorated.

I don't know how I got home. I think my dad came and got me and my bike. At dinner, I sort of mentioned that Grandma had kind of maybe been distressed about something. My mother had clearly been debriefed, which meant that my grandmother had called my mother and told her what happened, which was, as far as I knew, unprecedented, since the only thing my grandmother spoke to my mother about was her weight and inability to handle money. I guess she was upset, I conjectured. Well, my mother said, what did you expect?

After that, things were different. I'd still sit in her kitchen while she held court, but something was lost. When she'd be quiet like she'd been in the living room, I'd start to worry I was screwing everything up again, and then I'd work very hard to try to keep her laughing. It was like after that, she knew I could hurt her, and I knew I could hurt her. There weren't going to be any words that could undo the words I had sent out into the universe. She couldn't trust me anymore. And we could never go back.

I thought about it a lot over the years, how in a matter of minutes, I irreversibly corrupted what had been the most precious relationship in my life, and how it happened without me even knowing I was doing it. I dream about it, sitting across from my grandmother, light slipping through Venetian blinds on a yellow grey Southern California afternoon. Some of the things you said upset me. Some of the things you said upset me.

Ira Glass

Alexa Junge is a writer in Los Angeles.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, and Sarah Koenig. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Laura Bella, Seth Lind, PJ Vogt, and Emily Youssef.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can sign up for our free weekly podcast, absolutely free. And you just have a little time left to enter our new t-shirt design contest, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who always has this advice for me.

Alexa Junge

Sleep with a bunch of men, so that when the right one comes along, you'll know what you're doing.

Ira Glass

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

Aanouncer

PRI, Public Radio International.