From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Micah Loewinger filling in this week for Brooke Gladstone. We begin the show in Havana, Cuba, in the fall of 2016.
Tony: I’m just lying on my bed on my laptop, watching this show…
This is a CIA officer, going by the pseudonym Tony.
Tony: and then all of the dogs in the neighborhood started barking… And then this loud sound just blasted into my bedroom. It started really loud, ear piercingly loud… The pressure started in the head, and the discomfort in the ear… then the severe, severe ear pain started. If you take a q-tip, you get that jarring AHH. imagine taking a sharp pencil and poking that off the eardrum.
Tony says the sound was directional –– it stopped when he moved out of his bedroom. But that was just the beginning...
Tony: I was at the top physical psychological emotional place that I could’ve ever been in my life. And I was gung-ho to do my job. And within six months, I was a zombie, and non-functional as a human being.
He was one of the first patients for what we now call Havana Syndrome, a mysterious affliction that seemed to spread among American diplomats in Cuba and then across the globe.
Tina Onufer: I felt paralyzed. It felt like I was in a dream and couldn't move…
Mark: I thought maybe I had early-onset Alzheimer’s…
These are the voices of American diplomats interviewed for a new podcast series from Vice called Havana Syndrome. What was done to them? Were they being attacked? And if so....By whom? With what kind of weapon?
In this hour, you’ll hear about three audio mysteries, and about the people trying to make sense of sonic clues - some audible, some not; sounds that hum and buzz all through our natural and built environments. We’ll start with Havana Syndrome, a 7-year-old mystery, still driving headlines.
NBC: A new assessment by U.S. intelligence officials says the debilitating ailment known as Havana Syndrome cannot be linked to any foreign adversary or weapon…
CNN: …To make the assessment that it’s likely not a foreign adversary I think is very bad intelligence tradecraft…. There is nothing in this latest report that disproves the possibility that this is a foreign adversary.
The Intercept reported just last week that the Pentagon has requested $36 million to treat patients of Havana Syndrome, and to continue studying its origins. That story came days after Fox News ran this primetime segment ..
Fox: Do you feel confident that the government is covering this up?
Dr. Benford: Ugh… It sure sounds like it to me… I think their motives could be that they want to cover it up because an attack on American embassy personnel is an attack on the United States. It’s essentially an act of war.
Which is to say, there are a range of theories about what really happened, and which theory you go with comes down to who you put your faith in…
Jon Lee Anderson: The first victims of Havana syndrome were afflicted by a similar range of symptoms, jarring, a paralyzing pain, a sound in their heads that apparently wasn't audible to others as far as they knew, but was to them.
This is Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer with The New Yorker, who traveled to Havana with Adam Entous, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, to try to solve the mystery once and for all...
Adam: …It was the first time Jon Lee and I were on the island together.
Jon Lee: …Havana’s my favorite city in the world, and I hadn’t been back in a long time.
They laid out their findings in that new podcast series from Vice. Adam and Jon Lee say the story really began in December 2014, before anyone got sick…
Obama: Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba, in the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years.
CNN: …The President ordered the opening of a US embassy in Havana for the first time in more than fifty years.
Then, in the fall of 2016… Almost two dozen US spies and diplomats reported experiencing a similar array of symptoms. The story went public at a State Department press briefing on August 9 2017.
Heather Neuert: So some US personnel are working at our US embassy in Havana Cuba, on official duties. They reported some incidents.
Heather Neuert: We don’t have any definitive answers about the source or cause of what we consider to be incidents.
The words “attack” or “weapon,” weren’t used by the State Department, but within 48 hours the media coverage had taken on a distinctly militarized tone…
NBC: It reads like a cold war spy novel ….
FOX: This was a terrorist attack against US diplomats and their families in Cuba. They used a sonic weapon…
Reporter: We’ve learned of these acoustic attacks in Cuba… who is responsible for the acoustic attacks? Russia? Cuba?
Rex Tillerson: We have not been able to determine who is to blame.
That last voice was Donald Trump’s secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was leading the administration’s dismantling of the State Department.
CNN: It’s being described as the White House cleaning house. CNN just learned four top state department management officials have been fired by the Trump administration.
CBS: President Trump has fired another government watchdog… Steve Linic, the inspector general of the state department was dismissed…
Maddow: Latest plans from the administration call for a 37 percent cut to the agency’s budget – 37%.
Trump and his anti-communist surrogates seemed happy to exploit the ambiguities of the Havana mystery…
Rubio: We can say that we don’t know how it happened. We can even say we can’t know for sure who did it. But two things we know for sure: people were hurt and the Cuban government knows who did it.
Rubio: 224 US government employees and their dependents in the most heavily monitored city in… the Western Hemisphere… and the idea that someone could put together some sort of action against… them and the Cuban government not see it or know about it - it's just not possible. And so it leads you to conclude that the Cuban government either did this or they know who did it and they can't say.
CBS: The Trump administration announced Friday that it is pulling more than half of its staff out of the American embassy in Havana.
Jon Lee Anderson: Donald Trump is … busily tearing down any aspect of Obama's legacy he can find,
Jon Lee Anderson
Anderson: including, the rapprochement with Cuba… And then over the reports of the Havana syndrome It's sort of used publicly as the reason for which the embassy is finally closed down.
Meanwhile, the US government reached out to a group of physicians at the University of Pennsylvania to study the Havana patients.
NBC: Doctors treating the victims… have found abnormalities in the white matter of their brains… This is the most specific finding so far about physical damage caused by those sonic attacks.
Adam Entous: Dr. Smith at the University of Pennsylvania is an expert in studying and helping people who suffer from concussions…
sees similarities between this kind of damage and what he sees in the concussion cases … involving professional sports players.
Over the next couple years other diplomats and intelligence officers continued to report incidents. And not just in Havana.
ABC: There are now more than 130 possible cases of havana syndrome, including in China and Russia….
In Vienna. Even Outside the White House!! In their podcast, Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson explore the popular explanations for these incidents. Like the sonic weapon theory...
A team of researchers in the UK and US quickly identified this sound, recorded by a patient in Havana, as the mating call of the Indies short-tailed cricket.
Adam Entous: Yeah… the Cubans brought me in to meet with their team of scientists that were trying to analyze it. And in that meeting, they said that they believed that it was crickets.
Many experts argued that sound can’t cause brain damage, not without deafening everyone in the area. So if not a sonic weapon, then what?
USA TODAY: 19 top experts from the national academies of scientists conclude the most likely explanation: directed pulsed microwave energy, consistent with a directed radio frequency energy attack
NBC: Microwave energy from some sort of external source. They don’t really know what that source is.
Jon Lee Anderson sees some Cold War precedent for this theory.
Jon Lee Anderson: …there was this long history of the Russians having directed barraging the US embassy in Moscow...going back to virtually the Stalin years.
Jon Lee and Adam interviewed officials who had been stationed at the Moscow embassy in the 50’s when microwave attacks occurred…
Jon Lee Anderson: the reason behind the KGB barraging the US embassy with microwaves wasn't apparently to necessarily harm the Americans, it was directed at some kind of interference with the CIA's own electronics, maybe eavesdropping equipment located inside the US embassy buildings.
Robert: If somebody douses your room right now with microwaves, your wi fi system would probably shut down. There's a good chance your computer would turn off.…Microwaves would literally heat your brain.
Robert Bartholomew, is a journalist and a professor of medical sociology at the University of Auckland. He doesn’t think it was a microwave weapon.
They asked those early victims to record their attacks, and they did. And microwaves cannot be recorded…
Bartholomew told me he was frustrated by all the coverage of that University of Pennsylvania study, which found white matter changes in the brains of the patients:
Robert Bartholomew: That study should never have been published... White matter tract changes are common in everything from migraine to depression to normal aging.… brain anomalies do not equate to brain damage.
When it comes to any of the foreign adversary theories...Bartholomew isn’t convinced.
Robert Bartholomew: For six years, the US government went down a rabbit hole searching for secret weapons and foreign conspiracies. And when they reached the bottom of that hole, all they found were rabbits.
And in fact his analysis aligns with a report published last month from several intelligence agencies which…
PBS: ...Found it very unlikely a foreign adversary was responsible. Very unlikely a weapon or any device caused the symptoms. And there’s not even a consistent set of physical symptoms that could be characterized as Havana Syndrome.
Robert Bartholomew says that in his opinion the best explanation for the symptoms experienced by all those spies and diplomats is the one he wrote about in his 2020 book Havana syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria.
Robert Bart holomew: …It is a collective stress response that's based on a belief. We all have beliefs, therefore we are all potential victims.
He points to the original Havana patients, who lived incredibly stressful lives.
Robert Bartholomew: when American diplomats and spies have been in Cuba in the past, they had a long history of harassment. You'd wake up in the morning, and you'd find cigarette butts on your kitchen table and you don't smoke. Or you'd see dog poo on your kitchen floor and you don't have a pet… And at the same time…they were being told you're being targeted with a sonic weapon and don't stand or sleep near windows…that prolonged anxiety can trigger anomalies in the brain. And that's exactly what happened in the Cuban cohort.
That’s not to say he discounts their pain.
Robert Bartholomew: …their symptoms are as real as any medical condition out there and that they are genuinely suffering. But… if you've been told you have brain damage from some… secret weapon, you're not going to get well as fast as you would if you believed that it was psychogenic in origin.
They heal slower, he says, because of something called the “nocebo” effect..
Robert Bartholomew: if I give you a sugar pill, tell you you’re going to feel better. Often you will…. But if I give you a sugar pill and tell you you're going to feel better, and then someone rushes in and says, “Oh my gosh, that sugar pill I just gave you, it's been contaminated with rat poison.” There's a good chance that within a few minutes you might get headache, nausea, dizziness, you might even vomit.
Micah Loewinger: You've described … mass psychogenic illness… as one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized conditions in medicine. In earlier decades it was commonly called “mass psychogenic hysteria.” And that term hysteria is very loaded because historically, doctors had said it came from a sickness caused by a, quote, “wandering uterus.”
I'd love to hear you respond specifically to the idea that there is this fraught history of telling female patients that they are not experiencing what they say they're experiencing and that it's just stress.
Robert Bartholomew: I have never claimed that the victims are crazy or are suffering from some type of mental disorder. Mass psychogenic illness is much more common than people realize. It affects normal, healthy people. Adam Entous recently described Havana syndrome victims as serious people who had no incentive to make up a story. Well, that shows me that he doesn't understand mass psychogenic illness. Mass psychogenic illness is not people who are crazy or mentally ill or weak minded. It is a collective stress response based on a belief.
In the Vice podcast, Dr. Douglas Smith, leader of the UPenn study told Adam and Jon Lee why he didn’t buy the psychogenic theory...
Dr. Smith: In mass hysteria, you have to be essentially contaminated or influenced by someone else with the same symptoms. … That doesn’t work here… because many of these patients had never met the other patients. They just independently had the same history of exposure and then they had these symptoms, independently describing the same type of story without seeing another patient.
Bartholomew says that mass psychogenic illness is not a conscious collusion between patients. But its a moot point in this case because.....
Robert Bartholomew: …the majority of cases in Havana syndrome, whether in Cuba or around the world, was not mass psychogenic illness. It was simply people being told they might be the targets and then redefining an array of preexisting health conditions under a new label, Havana Syndrome… to be a part of this is one of the most exciting things in history.
Some of the patients bristled at this theory on 60 Minutes last year saying that their suffering was sidelined by officials who did not see evidence of a weapon.
Man: I’m tired of the gaslighting that keeps coming from the US government. I’m watching new friends and colleagues I’ve trained with… being sent to these countries and coming back a shell of their former selves. We need to help them and we need to stop this.
Adam Entous: the work of Dr. Bartholomew and others who have been pushing this psychogenic argument… they're providing an armchair analysis without actually… having done any hands-on research with these individuals…
Robert Bartholomew: It's actually even better to look at it from afar,
because what's happened is you've got people…who got so close to these victims saying things like, oh, I've talked to these victims. They're really suffering. You want a degree of emotional separation... Wherever we have strong emotions, we're liable to fool ourselves.
Adam Entous: Seriously, the criticism here … is that we interviewed the patients?… Would you want us to cover the earthquake in Turkey without interviewing the victims?... you do really want to talk to the you want to talk to the affected... That's the job of the journalists…
Micah Loewinger: No, I agree...I'm just trying to play out the logic of the argument.. I don't think it's simply interviewing the patients... Some of the patients seemed primed to believe that it was an attack...
Adam Entous: Well that’s true…you're right that some of the patients, more than others… have strong opinions and beliefs about what they believe happened to them without evidence…. They can describe… the experience that they had, but they have no unique information about… what caused it… that said, it could be that it is psychogenic in some cases, you know, honestly… I was an agnostic when I started on this process. And frankly, I still remain agnostic today.
But Adam’s reporting partner Jon Lee says on the podcast that he believes a pro-Castro contingent within the Cuban government could have conspired with the Russians in Havana to target American diplomats with a microwave weapon.
Jon Lee: If Russia had the technology and it worked in Havana, why not take it on the world, especially if your goal in the life is to fuck with the US? … It’s about messing with our heads, anyway they can.
Adam: I hear what you’re saying Jon Lee, but I really think we need to stick with the facts. And there’s just not many of them. There’s a bunch of people who say they've been hurt but the CIA has been unable to find any communications intercepts in which officials in Russia or Cuba talk about what they did… I think it’s really strange they haven’t been able to collect anything like that.…
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Jon Lee how he felt about ending up on the same side of the debate as Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who he interviewed for their podcast..
John Bolton: It certainly, from all outward appearances, it was an attack on American personnel, first in Cuba, then in China. We can’t tolerate that… [HS_Bolton]
Micah: This guy has a reputation as a warmonger. He seems like the exact kind of person who would be very invested in there being a secret Russian weapon behind all of this.
Jon Lee Anderson: I totally agree with you. He's almost a cartoonish anti-communist cold warrior… He didn't really make me feel more convinced of my hypothesis at all, although he echoed some of the same conclusions. The Russians… are the most neurotically belligerent to the Americans, and they're the only ones, again, who had something relatively similar in terms of… experimenting with microwaves against Americans in the past. So two plus two equals four basically for me.
For me, it does not add up. After listening to their podcast and reporting this piece for the past couple of weeks, I’m leaning towards the conclusion reporter Jack Hitt came to when he investigated this story for Vanity Fair in 2019.
Jack: I think … the Occam’s Razor explanation, the one that accounts for all of the facts as we know them in the simplest possible way—but for journalists, the least satisfying—is what’s known as mass psychogenic illness.
He’s speaking here on the New Republic podcast.
Conversion disorder is the other phrase that's often used -
I don’t know what it feels like to be a spy or diplomat living abroad, facing regular harassment. Or what the symptoms of the Havana patients felt like. We can study the arguments for this and that theory, but we can’t say with certainty what happened to them. But, oddly enough, while working on this episode, I had a kind of minor mental breakdown and had to take time off from work. I’d get an awful headache and feel sleepy every time I thought about doing my job. I think it’s burnout and I’m working on it. I know, wah wah woe is me, another Millennial journalist who feels bad for himself, but that’s really how I felt. The more I watched and heard interviews with the Havana Syndrome patients, the more I came to see this as a story about the physical and mental toll of work –– a toll we’re taught to minimize, explain away, and hide from one another.
it's called conversion disorder because intense stress under pressure is converted under pressure into real physical illness and really the key thing that the scientists and doctors I spoke to said...is that these are real symptoms. Conversion disorder makes you sick.
Coming up, how the police can use that buzzing sound from your fridge to help solve crimes. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I’m Micah Loewinger, filling in for Brooke Gladstone. Okay, so this next mystery is a little different. It has to do with an obscure form of audio forensics –– a technology called electrical network frequency analysis or ENF.
That’s Jen Munson, she’s On the Media’s technical director. Her job is to make the hosts, producers, reporters, and the people we speak to sound as clean and clear as possible.
Jen: my approach is mostly to find the thing that I like in someone's voice and bring that out.
I called her up to tell her about ENF analysis, though she didn’t know that. I just said I was working on an episode about audio mysteries.
Jen: Audio mysteries!
I told her that I had sent a scientist some recordings of me interviewing people on our show –– just my side of the conversation, my voice –– and using ENF analysis, this researcher was able to tell me the day and time, almost to the exact second, that I recorded each interview.
Jen: Forensic audio is really fascinating to me. I would think there would be a way to compare it to known other recordings, you know, traffic sounds… like environmental sounds around you.
Micah: Okay. That's a great guess, but that's not right.
Jen: That’s not right!? Tell me now I want to know.
Nassir: hi, I'm Nassir Memon. I'm a professor here at NYU Tandon School of Engineering in the Computer Science and Engineering department.
Nassir oversees the group at New York University that published papers on ENF analysis as recently as this year. They get funding from The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense. This type of audio forensics has been studied in academia for a couple decades but its use by law enforcement is what caught his eye.
Nassir: To my understanding the first folks that had done it was the London Metropolitan Police.
In 2010 a specialist at the Metropolitan Police department described ENF as the “most significant development in the field since techniques were developed to analyse the Watergate Tapes.” Referring to the early 70s, when a team of nascent audio forensics engineers spent months and months trying to recover the missing 18 minutes in Richard Nixon’s White House recordings.
Nassir explained to me that for ENF analysis to work, he needs to find something very specific in the recordings I sent him, a bit of interference that Jen is very familiar with...
Jen: You'll see on the graph, you’re getting… the low rumble.
I had Jen use a fancy audio equalizer tool to look at the different frequencies in a recording I sent to Nassir’s team.
Jen: There's a little bit of this like hum, 60 hertz. [00:26:10] Can you hear that?
Micah: I think it's kind of imperceptible in this recording.
Jen: But my ears are tuned to hear it.
Audio engineers will tell you that this 60 hertz hum contaminates all kinds of recordings.
Jen: That’s the first thing I’m approaching is getting rid of that sound… you hear it a lot on guitar amps. You hear it with…
Nassir: my refrigerator, a TV…
Jen: Elevators in buildings...
Nassir: a refrigerator…
Jen: It’s very common!
Many of our electrical things, all around us, are constantly buzzing at 60 hertz, or a harmonic like 120 hertz. And what we’re hearing, or not hearing, is the electrical grid. The companies that manage our power, in my case, Con Edison in New York, are required by law to maintain that 60 hertz output.
Nassir: But it’s unable to keep it exactly at 60… lights turn on and off, and people turn on devices. And so it’s trying to cater to the load. It doesn't want to produce too much electricity.
Micah: The demand for electricity is constantly changing based on what's plugged in.
Nassir: And the production mechanism is trying to keep pace with it and it doesn’t succeed… in maintaining it to exactly 60. So it becomes 59.8. 60.1.
Micah: if you were to map the frequency over time, it would not be the straight 60 hertz. It would be this ever so slightly wiggle.
Nassir: Yes, ever so slightly wiggle… the utility companies, they have to measure this and report it to the government… but we can measure it too.
Nassir’s former grad student Saffet Vatansever built a very simple computer that records the wiggle from the grid every second or so. And when I sent Saffet my recordings, he isolated the 60-ish hertz hum, which might have come from my laptop charger plugged in a few feet from my microphone.
Nassir: So he would pull out the data for the last three months that we've been capturing.
I told Saffet that I often recorded my interviews a couple weeks before they’re aired, which a forensic specialist would quickly figure out anyway. But mostly so he wouldn’t have to spend unnecessary time cycling through years worth of data.
Nassir: and then he would run an algorithm on the sound… using a sliding window. … every 20 seconds he sort of slides it over, And at some point where it was the right time, … matches, matches, matches
Which is how he guessed the time of three of my recordings within 10 seconds.
Micah: I just love the fact that it's such “a one man's trash is another man's treasure” thing. For you and audio engineers, you would get rid of it. The thing that makes your job slightly harder is actually like this forensic fossil that can be dug up to glean information about when something happened, when the recording was made.
Jen: I’m blown away.
Even though ENF has been around for nearly 2 decades, it doesn’t seem to have caught on in any significant way in the US. I reached out to an editor at Bellingcat, the cutting-edge investigative outlet known for its use of data and tech - they knew about ENF analysis but weren't familiar with journalists using it. I couldn’t find any court records mentioning its use by American law enforcement.
Catalin Grigoras, one of the early developers of ENF, told me it's often used for checking to see if media has been edited or tampered with –– you can compare the hum in a piece of media to the data from the grid to see if it’s been spliced or re-arranged. Other scholars have referenced the Osama Bin Laden cave videos as a hypothetical application –– investigations in which the ability to learn which electrical grid a person is near might offer up new leads. But the issue here is that the technology only works if A, the hum, is captured in the recording, which is a bit of a crapshoot, and B, you have access to the right grid data. Nassir Menon.
Nassir: If I was running an intelligence agency, I would make sure I'm capturing everywhere in the world.
Micah: Do you think… American intelligence agencies are interested in ENF?
Nassir: Intelligence won't tell me. Right. And if I knew, I may not be able to tell you as well, which I don't.
Micah: Do I believe you?
Nassir: I don't have any secret clearance.
Micah: You mentioned that the study was funded by DARPA. … It does seem like you are helping develop a technology that could be used for surveillance.
Nassir: We are scientists. We like to further science. And science can be used for good and bad. So we just leave that question aside quite often. It just gets very, very, very complicated.
He told me at one point in his team’s research, he had considered collecting way more data…
Nassir: Even different countries. Make it public. Put a tool whereby you submit a video and then I'll tell you what time it was taken. And then I thought, that's going too far. That's going too far because. The ethical issue started coming up to me.
Micah: What if a stalker wants to track somebody down using videos… posted on Instagram.
Nassir: Yeah, that's why I didn't do it. The other reason… I don't think there was enough money in it. I'm not trying to say I'm a very ethical person. If there was money maybe I would have done it. There was no reason to do it.. so I did not.
Micah: I've gotten you to admit that you're corruptible.
Nassir: Well, we all can be. Let's put it that way.
I don't really know how useful ENF analysis is for mass surveillance. There are far better ways to track people, like GPS or the type of stuff you can legally buy from data brokers -- even, little visual clues in the back of a selfie can lead a dedicated sleuth to figure out where you live. What drew me to learn more about ENF is the poetry of it. Think about it: Everytime you turn on a light or plug in your phone or vacuum your rug or blow dry your hair...you are contributing to the “ever-so-slightly-wiggle” as the grid adjusts itself to our needs. It's a barely audible symphony that we’re all playing a part in.
The American electrical grid (which has been called “the largest machine in the world” is a pulsating map that should remind us of just how interconnected we all are. Coming up, our final mystery is about another map made of sound… that no human, not even Jen Munson, can hear. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I’m Micah Loewinger. This next audio mystery might teach us something remarkable about a seemingly unremarkable bird: the pigeon.
I first learned about this story from a fellow radio journalist, a man who happens to be a lifelong fan of pigeons.
Robert: Well, I'm a New York kid, so there were pigeons at the very beginning of my life. When I would go to the playground, there was my mommy, the baby carriage and the pigeon.
Robert Krulwich is the co-creator and former co-host of Radiolab.
Robert: When I would look at the pigeons, apparently, according to my mother, I would try to touch a pigeon that many people think that they're vermin and shouldn't be touched never occurred to me.
Micah: And pigeons, oddly enough, played an integral role in early journalism.
Robert: In media history, it was a guy named Israel Josephat. And he lived in Aachen, in Germany.
In 1850, Josephat started a company that brought news to Aachen from Brussels faster than anyone else
Robert: There was a stock market in Brussels. And if you were over in Aachen, you'd want to know what was hot and what was cold and what was more and what was less. But you couldn't find that out unless you took the eight hour train.
There was a gap in the telegraph lines between these two cities so the train was the bottleneck. Until he realized that pigeons could fly from Brussels to Auchan in just 2 hours.
Robert: You'd have to take them on the train to Brussels and then put messages on them in Brussels and they'd go up and then go right back to Germany… He would put a little satchel onto the pigeon and into that satchel. He'd place a little bit of information like, you know, “today the diamond price went up.” Or “get this, cantaloupes are selling down”… And he was the first one to know what was going on in Belgium about 5 hours before anyone else.
Micah: And that in the press, as we both know, is a competitive edge.
Robert: Oh, gosh, yes.
There’s actually a 1940 film about Josephat’s brilliant business.
Trailer: Who is this man who trades in secrets? Who controls the most amazing dispatch system ever known. A lone pigeon soars into the sky, carrying a crumpled scrap of paper…
Micah: Who was this man? Why are we even talking about him?
Robert: Well, he changed his name to Mr. Reuters of the famous Reuters news service…
It’s true. Reuters - the global news agency, was started with pigeons. Which is to say that while we take these birds for granted, or are simply grossed out by them, (they’re not called “rats with wings” for nothing), pigeons are embedded in the DNA of modern communication.
From the middle ages onwards, pigeons have been dutifully delivering the word; During the siege of Paris in 1870 pigeons flew thousands of messages to and from the city. Pigeons were awarded medals of honor for saving human soldiers in World War 1 and World War 2.
Which brings us to our final audio mystery of the show, a story that Robert wrote about for his blog on National Geographic dot com, a story that demonstrates how little we know about how pigeons do what they do.
Robert: One day, a guy named Tom Roden in Manchester, England, walks out the door of his house and he's going to walk the dog.
This is in 2002.
Robert: And he looks and he sees a pigeon sitting right there in front of his house. And he goes: “Oh! I know this pigeon!” It had a name. It was called Champion Whitetail.
This was the first time Tom had seen Champion Whitetail, his bird, in 5 years.
Robert: He was a pigeon fancier and this was one of his greatest birds…Champion Whitehill was a champion because it had won 13 races in its day. It had crossed the English Channel 15 times… And he hadn't seen it for five years because the last time he'd seen it, he'd sent it on a race and it hadn't come back.
CNN Reporter: It was billed as the race of the century. Prize-winning birds from all over Britain were driven to France to mark the centenary of the Royal Pigeon Racing Society with a cross channel flight.
Robert: 60,000 birds were entered into that contest.
Reporter: But many of the homing pigeons, carefully prepared by their owners, never returned.
Robert: Tens of thousands of birds just didn't come back.
Micah:Newspapers at the time had dubbed it “the great pigeon race disaster.”
Robert: Right… these birds are trained and they're expensive. And then when five years later, one of those 10,000 birds suddenly shows up in Manchester and says hello to its boss, that's a thing…
Micah: It sounds like there are two mysteries. What caused the great pigeon racing disaster of 1997?
Micah: And where the hell has this pigeon been for five years?
John: They were trying to figure out what the heck happened and they ended up trying to blame it on the weather.
This is John Hagstrum.
John: I'm a geophysicist. I worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for 41 years and I'm now an emeritus there.
Like Robert, he’s been thinking about pigeons for decades, and he might have cracked the case of the royal race.
John: Queen Elizabeth’s birds were in this race. So it was a big deal. And there was a big inquiry. And I got ahold of the report on this inquiry ––
Fancier on CNN: Heavy rain –– the birds would just not face it. I think they spent hours and hours flying around the race point and just did not leave.
John: Didn't quite make sense to me. But anyhow, it was part of the collection of races that I was able to find at that point that had been smashed for mysterious reasons…
John: And that's the term that the pigeon racers use when they let the birds go and for some reason, usually weather, the pigeons just go to roost and don't come back.
A trend began to form. There were a handful of other races like this across Europe. A year later, in 1998 –– this time in the US, on the East Coast –– there were two other smashed races on the same day.
NPR: On Monday, 2,000 homing pigeons were released in Virginia, to begin their flight back to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Only 200 made it. The rest seem to have disappeared. In a separate pigeon race, from Western Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, 600 of the 800 birds are missing.
John: One was released in Virginia and one was released in western Pennsylvania. And they were both going back toward lofts in the Philadelphia area, and they actually intersected.
Maybe the birds were disrupted by something that happened around the moment the flight paths crossed.
Jon: Actually it was right over Harrisburg, where Three Mile Island, the nuclear plant was. So I got sort of sidetracked by nuclear plants… I called them up and I was very suspicious, you know. Did you have any high pressure gas releases or were you doing anything funny at this time on this day? And they denied it.
Micah: You were a full on pigeon detective is kind of what I'm hearing.
Jon: This is what you got to do! You gotta put on your gum shoes and go out. I was calling the Department of Transportation –– had they been doing any blasting? I was even thinking of calling to see if Gettysburg, they were having any Civil War reenactments and, you know, shooting off a lot of cannons. But what really finally gave it away was I had been thinking about infrasound and I was reading infrasound papers.
Micah: Let me let me pull this back a little bit. What is infrasound?
Jon: Well, infrasound is basically sound at frequencies below our hearing range. Just as ultrasound is the hearing above our hearing range. Dog whistles and bats are all working in the ultrasonic ultrasound range, which is very high frequency. So very short wavelengths, but infrasound is below our hearing, so very long wavelengths.
Robert: If you're a pigeon. You can sense tones that are 12 octaves below middle C, So that would be beyond human hearing.
Jon: pigeons were the first birds that were shown to be able to hear it. That was done at Cornell in the 1970s.
The question of whether birds can hear infrasound is still contested among biologists. Anyway, John Hagstrum was looking at this collection of races on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, the two Pennsylvania races and the royal race across the English Channel. What might connect them –– when he thought of the Concorde.
Ad: British Airways Concorde, the first supersonic airliner to fly you at twice the speed of sound.
Robert: Those gorgeous planes that look … kind of like giant triangles with sort of curvy noses.
The now-retired plane that once transported movie stars from London Heathrow to New York’s John F Kennedy airport in less than half the time of a normal plane.
Ad: The Concorde has crossed the Atlantic in 3 and a half hours.
Jon: so when I finally saw a map of the Concorde route coming in towards JFK, I saw that it was pointed right at the intersection of these races. And I went, “Oh my God, that could be it.”
A plane landing roughly 100 miles away from the pigeon races seems like a wild explanation until you consider what defined the Concorde…
Pilot on intercom: We should be supersonic about 10 minutes after take-off…
AP: …escalating to Concords regular speed, twice the speed of sound
Captain: faster than a rifle bullet! 23 miles every minute
Robert: Now, when a plane breaks the sound barrier, it is constantly sending little sonic booms in its path. Boom Boom Boom.
Jon: They are quite loud. I actually heard one once as a geologist way out in the field in Montana. I thought it was an atomic bomb…
[SOUND OF SONIC BOOM]
This is why supersonic flight over land in the US was outlawed in 1973, because the sonic booms could break windows and freak people out. Hence, why the Concorde mostly flew over the Atlantic.
Jon: The Concorde is pushing the sonic boom like a bow wave of a boat. And when it slows down and goes subsonic, that wave keeps going. And the thing is the audible sound in that wave gets absorbed by the atmosphere relatively quickly. But the very low frequency infrasound wave just keeps going and going and going.
He crunched the numbers with the two US races.
Jon: The first thing I did was just … a few back of the envelope calculations. I know sort of how fast pigeons fly. I know how fast … sound moves through the atmosphere….So I could calculate when this sonic boom came and hit and was there an intersection between the pigeons racing course when the pigeons were there and the sonic boom wave coming through and it matched it matched for one of the races.
But, the timing didn’t match for the other race because…
Jon: they had actually delayed releasing the pigeons so that they actually released them after the Concorde should have landed at JFK. So I called up this guy, I'll never forget his name was Rob Hasbini, and he was with Air France at JFK. And I said, “in order for my calculations to work, your plane had to be late over 2 hours that day.” And he said, “This is the Concorde. We're never 2 hours. Are you kidding? It's only 3 hours from Paris.” So I said, please, it's a scientific question. Will you please look it up? And he said, quote, “Are you a magician? It was two and a half hours late that day.”
Jon: Those are one of the moments you live for as a scientist. When you make a prediction and somebody tells you you were right.
So let’s return to the 1997 Royal Centenary Race across the English channel…
John: The Concorde SST leaving Paris goes subsonic until it gets over water because they don’t want to lay down a boom carpet right along the English Channel. And so I basically calculated that the birds that had been released in Paris in the centenary race in 1997 would have been crossing the channel, just as the Concorde would have been going supersonic down the channel on its way to New York… [00:13:04] you standing there wouldn't hear a thing, but the birds would be rocked by this boom. You know, it would be quite loud to them. But it's below our hearing.
Which would explain why the fanciers in Nantes had blamed it on the weather…
Pigeon Expert: The majority wouldn’t go through that belt of rain. They might try to go around it, but depending on the distance this could tire them out.
CNN: It’s thought that the pigeons are just resting up somewhere in France before completing their flight across the channel.
Let’s go back to Tom Roden in Manchester and his prized pigeon, Champion Whitetail, who returned home five years after the race…
Robert: because the bird was a news story in England, in Manchester. It got into the newspapers and maybe from Reuters for all I know ––
Micah: I don't know if that's true, but I'd love it if it were. (laughing)
Robert: Yeah. So people could read that story wherever they lived and it turned out that there was a guy in Nantes, who read the story.
And he wrote a letter to Tom Roden saying essentially.
Robert: “Wait a second, wait a second. On the very day of that race, I walked into my backyard and there was a shaggy sad-ass bird sitting in my backyard looking terribly exhausted. And it had a little ringlit on its foot. And I wrote down the number of the bird then, he walked the bird to the Museum of Natural History in Nantes and said, “Here I found this bird.” And then the museum took it. And presumably they eventually released it. So that was two weeks after the race. We now have four and a half years without a lot time.
Micah: A lot of unaccounted for time!
The fact is we really don’t know how Champion Whitetail made its way home after 5 years. For John Hagstrum, the geophysicist behind the Concorde theory, there’s a more fundamental question about how Champion Whitetail or any pigeon makes these long journeys …
John: the big mystery that's still afoot is what is … how do they know where they are relative to home?… For humans or basically anyone to navigate. You need a map and a compass. And a compass –– I think everybody knows what that is –– it will tell you directions. Are you going north, south, east or west? … And birds have compasses and they're pretty well understood. Pigeons in particular have a sun compass. They have a magnetic compass. Just the way we do. Night migrating birds can use the stars as a compass. But the big question is… what is the map?
He has a theory, which gets pretty heady, an idea he outlined in the Journal of Experimental Biology, though none of this has been tested with pigeons in a controlled setting....
Jon: This is where I'm getting more into maybe you could say somewhat speculation… What I'm basically saying is that the pigeons can hear the landscape.
Their map is made up of the infrasound emanating from the world below.
John: the ground surface is moving ever so slightly because of what are called microseisms. And microseisms are generated by waves in the deep ocean… what I'm talking about exists. But whether or not the pigeons are using it is speculation.
Robert: if you're a bird flying over a place you've never been before…
Robert: the sound …[00:24:03] that will come from the air off the hills and off the valleys and off the rooftops and off the tumbling waves on the surface of water, off the calm water, which will tell you what's underneath you… birds can, in effect, see with their ears.
Micah: They can feel the topography of the earth and the sea.
John: Infrasound has such huge wavelengths and pigeons have such a small distance between their ears that they can't really tell … its direction if they're just sitting still.. And so what pigeons do when they're released is… they fly in these big circles. And people have always wondered, “what are they doing?” I think what they're doing is Doppler shifting the low frequency signals. So when they're heading toward the signal, the frequency goes up. When they're headed away from the signal, the frequency goes down.
Micah: So they can derive directional information by hearing the change in pitch from the infrasound source.
Micah: How do we know it's not something much simpler like they just form a familiarity through eyesight –– they understand the landscape and they remember it the same way we do.
John: It's a good question! That's been studied. And they have actually put… little frosted goggles on pigeons so they can use their Sun Compass. That's their dominant compass. They can see the compass through these frosted lenses, but they can't see anything else… If you let them go, they can get within a couple of kilometers of their loft. But they have to see it to be able to fly in and land in their loft.
Micah: So you're proposing that for the majority of the navigation, even across places they've maybe never been before. They're using this infrasound detection.
Jon: That's correct.
Robert: I don't know. It's one of those things that brings me to question of the “umwelt,” which is a German word, which says, look, all of the creatures that live on this planet … All of them have their own abilities and their own way of experiencing being on earth, and…this story points up the deep mystery when two species decide to do something together. In this case, humans say, “Let's race!” and the bird says, “I'm for it!” And then off they go. But then what goes on in the bird's mind and what goes on in the people's mind are different things. And it's very hard to cross that sort of barrier of no understanding, of nothing shared. “Umvelt” is the word that says that each creature lives really in its own sensual universe. We can do things with each other. But can we understand what's going on in each other? No, we can't. And that's to me, a kind of beautiful thing.
Micah: Robert, thank you very much.
Robert: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
This seems like a fitting place to end an episode about mysteries. The umwelt is a concept about the limits of knowledge, but it’s also a reminder for humility. Mysteries demand answers. And there’s an implicit morality in the work of the scientist, investigative journalist, movie detective.. asking questions and following clues. But it’s worth pausing to consider what we might justify on the hunt for truth — like brash accusations in case of Havana Syndrome, or the hoovering up of personal data in the name of solving crime. The fact is sometimes you end up with more questions than answers… and that’s okay.
And, weirdly, pigeons played an integral role in early journalism.
That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wong and Suzanne Gaber, with help from Temi George. And our show was edited by our Executive Producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Sham Sundra. Jared Paul did the sound design. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Micah Loewinger, Brooke Gladstone will be back next week.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.