Radiolab: The Noise and Sloppiness of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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