Jad Abumrad: All right, K.
Robert Krulwich: Yes.
Jad: I want to start with a parental daydream for a second. It's an idea that's been kicking around for me since my kids were born. Actually, the idea itself is pretty old. It goes back to the 1800s.
Sam Kean: Right around Napoleon's time-
Jad: To a fellow by the name of Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck-
Sam: Yes. Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
Jad: - who, according to writers, Sam Kean-
Sam: He was really one of the first grand theorists in biology. He actually coined the word biology too.
Jad: His big idea, as you might know, is that what a person does in their lifetime could be directly passed to their kids-
Sam: Very easily. His famous example was giraffes.
Jad: Lamarck said, "Do you want to know how a giraffe got his long neck? One day, this mother giraffe, let's say, was looking up in the tree and saw some fruit and had to stretch her neck and stretch again, a whole lifetime of stretching. Then, when she had a baby, stretching got into the baby, and then that baby would stretch and stretch and stretch and then give a little more stretching to its baby. Eventually over the millennia, what you get is a creature with a very long neck.
Sam: Because they're reaching for the tops of trees.
Jad: It makes a kind of common sense, really.
Sam: It does. It does make a folk sense. He thought it worked with humans too. His example with humans was a blacksmith. He thought that because they're swinging hammers all day, they got big bulky muscles, and then they would pass the muscles to their children.
Jad: The sneaky idea here is that the blacksmiths, the giraffes, they made it happen. They willed the neck to get longer, the muscles to get bigger. Sam: The key point is that it wasn't something inborn in them. It was something they acquired during their lifetime-
Jad: Which they passed to their kids. That's wrong. That's not how it works, we're told.
Robert: We now know that that's not the case.
Jad: But, wouldn't it be nice if that's how it worked because, now that I've got these two kids, I find myself thinking like, "Okay, I know these kids have their genes half for me, half my wife and I know I can't change those genes. I know fate is going to give them a couple of random mutations in those genes that I have no control over." That's just the cold logic of Darwinian evolution. That's offensive.
The idea that they could be constrained by their DNA, that maybe one of us gave them a bit of DNA that's going to hold them back, it's a terrible thought. What you do, I think all parents do this, is that you slip into this LaMarchian delusion that what you do with your kids could somehow rewrite all that, that you can somehow by just being nice to them, reading them stories or whatever, that you could somehow break them free of all that.
Robert: Rewrite their blueprint?
Jad: I don't know. You don't really say it to yourself that way, but yes.
Robert: You can make a deep difference.
Jad: Yes. Like you can help them overcome you.
Robert: You can't.
Jad: I know.
Robert: That's what Darwin says. You can't.
Jad: I know. I know. Once they're born, their genes are fixed and change does not happen any generation or two. It happens really, really-
Sam: Really slowly, gradually achingly slowly.
Jad: One parent's stretching isn't going to do anything. See, that's the bummer of Darwinian evolution. As a parent, you are a tiny blip in a very, very long story.
Robert: But this hour we're going to fight this sad, sad feeling of inevitability and impotence and rewrite the so-called rules of genetics.
Jad: That's right. Today on Radiolab-
Robert: We are going to lick some rats-
Jad: Starve some Swedes-
Robert: Sterilize some women.
Jad: We're not going to do that ourselves.
Jad: We're going to play your stories where-
Robert: These things actually happen.
Jad: Yes. I'm Jad Abumrad.
Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.
Jad: This is Radiolab, stick around. It's going to get messy.
Robert: Okay. Let's get going and stick with your boy, Lamarck just for a second. Because we were talking to science writer Carl Zimmer and he told us that back in the early 1900s, this tension between Lamarck and Darwin got extra tense in a sort of fascinating way.
Jad: It all started in Vienna.
Carl Zimmer: At this really marvelous place called the Vivarium.
Robert: The Vivarium.
Carl: Yes.This was a really radical place at the time because you have to remember that people studying animals up till now, they were basically studying preserved specimens and so on. At the Vivarium as the name suggests, they have live animals.
Jad: Feels like a zoo basically.
Carl: Well, it was a zoo where there was all sorts of experiments going on. The fact is that taking care of animals, trying to keep them alive in a building is not an easy thing especially if it's 1903.
Robert: Luckily for the Vivarium and for our story, they had a guy.
Carl: Paul Kammerer.
Jad: Who was he? When was he?
Carl: He was born in 1880 in Vienna, Jewish family.
Robert: By all accounts a pretty good-looking guy. In pictures, he has that crazy Einstein fuzzy hair thing.
Jad: The genius cut?
Carl: He's 22, 23, and he already had this reputation for being amazing at keeping animals alive, that otherwise would just die.
Jad: His reputation was that he could get inside the mind of, say, a salamander and know just what it wanted to eat.
Robert: Or how much humidity it preferred. He was a born nurturer and he adored animals.
Carl: He actually named his daughter Lacerta, which is a genus of lizard. That's the kind of guy he is.
Robert: Of course the folks at the Vivarium asked him.
Carl: To build these terrariums and aquariums and stock them with animals.
Robert: Including a particular amphibian that plays a very big part in this story.
Sam: The midwife toad.
Jad: The midwife toad. It's writer, Sam Kean again, and here's he says what you need to know about the midwife toad.
Sam: Basically, the midwife toad has a strange habit for toads.
Jad: Most toads, he says, love to stay in the water. They like to hang out in the water and the females like to lay eggs in the water. But with the midwife toad, the female-
Sam: Lays her eggs on land and then the male midwife toad comes along-
Jad: Grabs the eggs.
Sam: - and actually kind of sticks them to his back legs, like a bunch of whitish grapes, and then hops around with them basically until they hatch.
Jad: He's got to live his life as a toad with all this baggage on him?
Carl: Just until they hatch and then 'til they go off.
Jad: Still, that's a burden that, he's carrying a big burden there.
Carl: Is your wife going to hear this. She carries your kids for nine months and you're like, "That poor male toad."
Jad: Anyhow, so you got this guy, Paul Kammerer, who's good with animals. You've got these toads who hate water. In one day we can imagine he gets curious as he's doing his rounds, he stops by the midwife toad terrarium, he looks down at that little male toad with grapes stuck to his legs and he wonders, "How adaptable is that little guy?" He hates water. Females seem to hate laying eggs in the water, but is that the end of the story?
Carl: What would happen-
Jad: If I made them go-
Carl: In the water?
Jad: Could they adapt?
Carl: I know what I'll do, I'm going to set up a terrarium for them and I'm going to make it hot, really uncomfortably hot, but I'm going to give them a base in the water. Nice, cool water.
Sam: He would basically turn the heat way, way up in these aquariums until they had to go underwater.
Jad: You can imagine these toads are like, "Dammit, fine. All right, I'll get in the water." Maybe they'd try and jump back out, but it was still hot so they'd have to jump back in. Since Kammerer kept the heat up, toads basically had to stay there in this watery place that they had not evolved for.
Sam: Darwin's theory would have said 90% of the toads are going to die. There's going to be this massacre of toads and only a few lucky ones are going to survive.
Robert: Those lucky ones according to Darwin's theory, they would have had to have been born with some random mutation in their genes-
Sam: That gave them an advantage in this situation.
Robert: That advantage, whatever it was, because it starts with one individual, and then it gets passed onto the kids and then onto their kids, it would take a long, long, long time to spread through the whole population because generally, that's how evolution works. It takes a while.
Jad: According to Kammerer, here's what happened when he heated up the toads little cage.
Carl: They'd spend more time in the water.
Jad: As expected.
Carl: When it came time to mate, the males and the females, they would mate in the water.
Jad: At first, it didn't go so well because if you're a land toad and you're trying to have sex in the water, it's kind of hard, you're slippery, partner's slippery. You just haven't evolved for this and there's no way you can, at least not quickly. According to Kammerer, shortly after these toads got into the water, they did begin to evolve fast. They began to grow these all puffy things on their hands.
Carl: These rough scratchy pads-
Sam: What's known as a nuptial pad.
Robert: Nuptial pads.
Jad: It was just what the males needed.
Carl: So they can grab onto the female and hold tight while they're mating.
Robert: They didn't have these on land?
Sam: No, they did not have them on land.
Jad: They just appeared in the water?
Jad: How long did it take?
Carl: Right away.
Jad: In just two generations, these toads seem to have done something that should have taken I don't know 50, 100 generations, maybe more. Kammerer thought, "Wow."
Sam: "They can respond to the environment."
Carl: He was revealing it with experiments.
Jad: They're not trapped by their genes.
Carl: Around 1908, he started publishing all of these results.
Robert: It's big news.
Jad: He grabs toads and he hit the road.
Carl: He hit the lecture circuit and he hit it big.
Sam: He was known for going around and giving what he called his big show lectures where he would wow whole audiences of people.
Carl: In 1923, he actually comes to England. There was a newspaper called The Daily Express and they have these headlines that come out. It says, "Race of Supermen." That's the headline for his talk, and then-
Carl: - right below the headlines says, "Scientist's great discovery which may change us all."
Jad: What's he talking about? He was talking about toad, I thought.
Carl: He's not just talking about toads anymore, he's gone way beyond toads.
Sam: He extended this idea to people. He thought that you could engineer societies by changing the environment.
Carl: I just have to read this to you. The results make it probable that our descendants will learn more quickly what we know well, will execute more easily what we have accomplished with great effort, will be able to withstand what injured us almost to the point of death. Where we sought, they will find. Where we began, they will accomplish.
Robert: This idea won him a lot of fans including not surprisingly the Soviets.
Sam: Yes, it was a very attractive theory to them in Moscow.
Robert: Because the Soviets, they believe in Karl Marx's idea that human beings were an improvable species, that if you can change the conditions around people, you change the people. Here, Kammerer's saying, "You can do this even on a physical level."
Carl: But there are a lot of skeptics.
Robert: And there were from the beginning. When Kammerer published his results initially, a bunch of scientists immediately began to say.
Carl: "Wait a minute, hold on here, it would be nice if life was like that but life isn't like that. Life is hard."
Jad: People can't just will themselves into a more perfect form.
Robert: According to Darwin, life and changes are ruled by chance-
Jad: And fate.
Robert: And to believe anything else, that's naive. This whole toad thing, to the Darwinian faction, it didn't scan really, so some scientists began to ask Kammerer if they could look at his toads or just take a little peek for themselves, and every time-
Sam: Kammerer said no, they were his specimens.
Jad: Get your own.
Sam: It was this struggle for a few years then World War one came and that disrupted everything.
Robert: Kammerer, for one, was sent off to work as a sensor for the Austrian military.
Sam: His lab ended up getting destroyed-
Robert: Including all his toads.
Sam: Except he had one. He had one remaining midwife toad.
Jad: This whole debate, two totally different ways of seeing life-
Carl: It all came down to this jar with his toad in it. You have to bear in mind that at this point, it only had one hand left.
The right hand had been cut off for microscopic slides, and so, you could only see one nuptial pad. It all comes down to this and all of that was just about to fall apart.
Robert: What happened?
Carl: There was an expert on reptiles named G. Kingsley Noble.
Sam: Gladwin Kingsley Noble.
Robert: What a name, you've got to like this guy.
Jad: Yes, it sounds like trouble.
Sam: He was for Kammerer.
Carl: He was mighty skeptical. He actually went to Vienna.
Jad: Visited Kammerer's lab when Kammerer wasn't there.
Carl: And he makes a very careful study of this hand.
Sam: When he examined it, he noticed that there was a syringe hole there.
Carl: He says, "This isn't a nuptial pad, it looks darkened but that's just ink."
Robert: What do you mean ink?
Robert: Like squid ink?
Carl: No, like India ink.
Robert: He doctored the toad.
Sam: That was the implication, except Kammerer tried to defend himself by saying. "Do you think I'm a dumb cop or an idiot because that's what I would have to be if I left a forgery with ink standing around openly in the laboratory where so many of my enemies would have entry?"
Jad: How did he explain it?
Sam: He thought it might have been an assistant trying to frame him because he was Jewish and there was antisemitism growing at this time, so he thought that someone had framed him and six weeks after Noble published his results in nature, Kammerer sent a letter to Moscow.
Jad: Turning down a job that they'd offered him.
Sam: Because it would reflect badly on the Soviet state.
Carl: And then-
Jad: The following day-
Carl: Kammerer puts on a suit and he walks off into the mountains-
Sam: Outside Vienna on a Rocky mountain trail-
Carl: And he shoots himself.
Carl: Lamarckism pretty much died there.
Jad: Then over the next 70 some odd years, Lamarck basically became the poster boy for the big dumb idea, the idea that you want to believe in but that, you know, isn't true.
Carl: There's like some hope here because-
Jad: Okay, all right, this is interesting. Then, Carl told us about this research that showed-
Carl: That if, if a mother-
Jad: Well, he couldn't quite remember the details.
Carl: Does what a mother-
Robert: Unusual for Carl.
Carl: - mouse or rat? I'm trying to remember.
Jad: Was it rats or mice?
Michael Meaney: No, it was rats.
Jad: Rats. We ended up talking to the guy who did the work.
Carl: Michael Meaney, I think.
Michael: Yes, my professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill University in Montreal.
Jad: Here's the backstory. About 30 years ago-
Michael: I was an undergraduate-
Jad: Michael was in school and he got interested in a very, very basic question about how things get passed down? Have you ever had one of those moments where you suddenly are your dad and it catches you off guard?
Robert: Oh, of course.
Jad: I mean, it's pretty common but here's a for instance, my dad from my entire life had this thing where if someone was whistling, they could be whistling six tables over in a restaurant and he would turn around and be like, "Stop that", it was like it was scraping his very nerves.
The other day someone was whistling and I was like, "Stop it", and it just hit me, I was like, "Oh God, I was him", it's never appeared until now.
Robert: You wonder, where did that come from?
Jad: Is that a genetic hatred of whistling that I just had? Or did I somehow learn that? That, in a sort of ass backward way was Michael's question?
Michael: How does that happen?
Jad: How did these simple little traits get passed forward?
Frances Champagne: We start looking at maternal care.
Jad: Many years later, he and this woman.
Frances: Frances Champagne.
Jad: Who now works at Columbia University. They decided to explore this question in rats.
Frances: We have our rats in the lab and-
Jad: They thought, "Let's just see if we can figure out how it is the rat mothers pass down their parenting skills?"
Frances: That's right.
Robert: If you were a great rat mommy, what would you be doing with your rat baby?
Frances: You would be licking them quite a lot.
Jad: That's what good rat mothers do, they lick their babies a lot. She says, you can tell right away just by looking that some rat moms don't lick their kids a lot.
Frances: There's a normal distribution, right?
Jad: You got your good parents and your bad parents. What they decided to do first was to try to figure out which rat was which, which meant, interestingly, counting all the legs.
Frances: Putting this into context, you have a rat mom and they have about 16 to 20 babies.
Jad: All at once?
Frances: At once and we're watching 40 litters at a time.
Carl: How do you count the [crosstalk]
Frances: You have to look at one cage, say, are they licking? Yes, no, okay move on to the next cage, yes, no? Move on to the next cage, yes, no? You have to do that for five hours a day for six consecutive days. Move on to the next cage yes, no? Move on to the next cage, yes, no?
Jad: See, this is the story of science that doesn't get told. It's just a mind crushing tedium.
Frances: Yes, yes. The next stage, yes, no?
Michael: Yes, it drifts into something like a shopping channel.
Jad: In any case ,what they saw at the end of all this counting was-- Well, first of all, what they saw was this pattern that rat pups who got licked a lot as babies, when they grew up, they licked their babies a lot and the rat pups who didn't get licked a lot when they grew up, they didn't lick their babies.
Michael: The great rat nightmare comes true where the females become their mothers.
Robert: Okay, I think that makes a lot of sense.
Jad: Actually, it's kind of obvious. We all know this, that there are cycles of abuse or whatever, like if you're abused as a kid, you were more likely to abuse your kid, but still, you got to wonder.
Frances: Why? Why would that happen?
Jad: How do those cycles perpetuate? With the licking, is it a teaching thing where the babies become good mothers because-
Frances: They've learned it.
Jad: By watching their mothers.
Frances: They've seen it and they've repeated the experience.
Jad: Or does it get passed on such a deep level that doesn't even require teaching?
Michael: That's the reason, of course, that we work with rats because we can get inside the brain.
Jad: Michael and Frances looked inside the brains of these rats and what they saw was that the rats who had been licked a lot as babies, they had more stuff in their head.
Robert: What do you mean? More brain cells? More what kind of stuff?
Jad: No, not brain cells. More of this particular protein-
Michael: That activates maternal behavior.
Jad: When rats have more of this protein, they will act more motherly. They had more.
Jad: Think about what makes proteins.
Robert: [unintelligible 00:20:29]
Robert: Yes, genes and DNA.
Jad: Don't you see, somehow the mother's tongue is getting all the way down in there and going [mumbles] and messing with the baby's DNA.
Robert: Is that what you're saying? That the licking is changing the baby's DNA?
Jad: That's what I-- [crosstalk] I'm not quite saying that.
Robert: It's against the rules.
Jad: That's against the rules. You can't change your DNA.
Michael: Yes, you can't touch that.
Jad: It's off-limits. That tongue is doing something to the DNA.
Robert: What is the licking doing then?
Michael: That's our challenge.
Jad: Do you have any theories for how this tongue is tickling the DNA or whatever it's doing? Then, Michael just launched into this thing.
Michael: What happens when moms lick their pups is that the puppy comes aroused. The reason they're more aroused is that the mom's licking activates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline in the pup.
Jad: He says those two chemicals-
Michael: Kickoff certain hormonal systems. One of them is called the thyroid system. Thyroid hormones then get into the brain and they turn on certain neural chemical signals. The neural chemical signal that gets activated during licking, is serotonin.
Jad: As in the mood chemical?
Michael: Yes. Mom's licking activates serotonin, and it's released onto brain cells in the hippocampus.
Jad: You're still with me?
Robert: I think I'm with you.
Jad: Started with the tongue. Four or five steps later, we are in-
Michael: Brain cells.
Jad: Almost instantaneously, the mother's tongue has reached into the baby's brain cells. Inside these cells in the center, coiled up little spools is the DNA. We're getting close to the moment of truth, there it is. That's the stuff that makes you, you but that you supposedly can't get to. Here's what I did not know about DNA. According to Frances, it's not just sitting up there perfectly preserved, it's in the middle of the cell, it's crowded.
Frances: You've got all these chemicals around.
Jad: Racing by-
Frances: In the cells.
Jad: Very often, one of them will just go crashing into the DNA and it'll stick there like a barnacle or a glob of peanut butter.
Frances: Exactly. Peanut butter, there we go.
Jad: What happens, it'll get stuck to one little part of the DNA and now that little bit of DNA-
Frances: Is very difficult to get at.
Jad: It's basically unusable.
Robert: Because it's got the thing stuck to it?
Jad: These things are called apparently, methyl groups.
Frances: Methyl groups are pretty sticky, they're hard to get off.
Jad: Imagine the DNA in that brain cell. All these chemicals racing by crashing into it sticking and one of the bits that gets covered up is that little bit that makes the proteins that create a maternal instinct. The bit of DNA that will give this baby when it grows up the instincts to be nice to its baby, and lick that baby.
Robert: You're saying that part of the DNA is covered up?
Jad: Yes. When methyl groups stick to that part of the DNA, the maternal instinct is effectively turned off. If you've got a mom who licks you-
Michael: Mom's licking activates serotonin.
Jad: Serotonin gets into the brain cells, and according to Michael unleashes-
Michael: A whole series of molecular events inside the cell. The critical part of this-
Jad: Is that all these changes wake up this little gang of proteins.
Michael: Known as transcription factors.
Jad: If they see methyl groups sitting on that bit of DNA, they are pissed. They bring-
Michael: A lot of friends to the party.
Jad: They all go down to the DNA, surround that methyl and just knock it right off the DNA.
Michael: That's it. Then they're going to basically revel at that particular spot and turn on that gene.
Jad: Now, the genes can make the proteins that make the rats a good mom?
Jad: That was awesome. Wow. That was amazing.
Robert: Why are you so thrilled?
Jad: Think about it, this is nature and nurture slamming into each other. You know, when smart people say, "There's no such thing as nature and nurture it's only interaction of the two," You're like, "What the hell does that mean?" Well, this is it.
Frances: This is real physical-chemical interaction between what's going on in the environment and what's going on with the DNA.
Jad: Because you begin with a mother's lick that ends up with a deep, deep change in the baby, not just the good, warm, fuzzy feeling, but a fundamental shift and who that baby is, and who that baby will be.
Carl: You're now hearing Lamarck's name invoked these days because there are things beyond genes that we pass down to our children.
Jad: Now, according to Carl, your genes are still fixed.
Carl: We can't rewrite our genes.
Jad: That is impossible so far as we know, but there seems to be this layer on top of the genes.
Carl: This second channel of heredity.
Jad: If the genes are the bottom floor, then this layer on top is sometimes called the epigenome and that thing can change based on your experiences.
Robert: Which when you think about it, it has a very Lamarckian flavor.
Frances: I think that's where Lamarck's ideas can be woven in and make some sense.
Jad: Do you call yourself a Lamarckian?
Frances: Not usually because it upsets people and I'm Canadian. I don't like to upset people.
Jad: Plus, Lamarck didn't get all the biological details right.
Frances: He had no idea about DNA-
Jad: Or very many of them right at all, but his basic idea seems to be true.
Frances: When you think of Kammerer, there was a report in science outlining a theory about how Kammerer's toads got these characteristics-
Frances: - that invoked these epigenetic inheritance and imprinted genes and it made it plausible.
Jad: Oh, so redeeming him?
Robert: Maybe or maybe not.
Jad: Thanks to Frances Champagne and Michael Meany and Sam Kean who writes about Paul Kammerer in his book The Violinist's Thumb. Also, thanks to Carl Zimmer whose latest is Evolution: Making Sense of Life.
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