by Madeline Rea

Nominated by Cat Cassel for Writing 160

Instructor Introduction

Madeline's podcast brims with laser-like exactitude, raw curiosity, and witty humor, as she reveals a bizarre method of using radio waves to kill bugs for scientific experimentation, which was developed in the 1920s by entomologists Thomas J. Headlee and Robert C. Burdette. While that may sound pretty niche, she frames this method through larger questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation and the limits of mad scientists. Her podcast demonstrates excellent production value and engagingly relays the fruits of her research, making it an absolute joy to listen to. 

- Cat Cassel

Radio Waves Vs. Buggy Brains


Radio static plays, gradually sharpening until the tone clears, indicating someone found the channel.

A snippet of RAID Commercial plays (0:32-0:35, 0:38-0:41)

Radio Static again

A snippet of HEY MIGHT BE GIANTS’s song INSECT HOSPITAL plays (1:41-1:45)

Radio Static again

A snippet of RONALD REAGAN'S SPEECH plays (around 7:21)

Radio Static again

A snippet of FLY ON A WINDSHIELD by GENESIS plays (1:10-1:17)

Radio Static Again

Some stereotypical radio music begins and underlays the announcer

1 ANNOUNCER (should sound like a corny 1950s person): We can kill bugs in all sorts of inventive ways. Crush them with a shoe, drown them in insecticide, but we’ve all seen that before. Don’t you want a new way to kill those pests? Well my friend, prick up your ears because you’re already listening to the solution: the radio!

A splat sound effect goes off, followed by static mixed with buzzing, which fades out.

2 REA: The 1920’s were the wild-west of scientific research. With almost no ethical guidelines scientists were free to pursue almost any experiment their mind could think of, even at the cost of their participants. For example, in 1924 a researcher forced his subjects to decapitate a rat in an attempt to see if everyone had a similar facial reaction to disgust. If anyone refused the act, he decapitated the rat in front of them himself. 

A slice sound effect plays

3 In keeping with the theme of death, today I’ll be discussing Thomas J Headlee and Robert C Burdette’s unique way to kill a bug. In 1929 the entomologists, or researchers who specialize in insects, did an unusual experiment in which the results were even more peculiar. They put a honey bee in a glass tube, then put two aluminum plates on either side of the vial but not touching the tube itself. Then, using a radio that, quote, “was made available through the courtesy of the General Electric Company” end quote they ran a high frequency through the aluminum plates. The radio waves increased the temperature of the vial by about 3 degrees fahrenheit. It is unclear in their report whether General Electric was made aware that their donation to the scientific community was being used to create a sauna for bees, but I’m sure they were excited by their contribution.

4 ANNOUNCER: But wait, there’s more!

5  Now that Headlee and Burdette were confident in their procedure, they began to actually kill the honey bees. They found that by using only a few amps they could increase a honey bee’s internal temperature by 33.45 degrees fahrenheit, killing it in about 52 seconds, all without anything touching the tube. This sound was around 33,000 hertz, making it impossible for humans to hear, but many other species including dogs, cats, elephants, bottlenose dolphins, the greater wax moth, and beluga whales, which have a greater sensitivity to frequencies, are able to sense or hear it. A short clip of the frequency will now be played, thus it is advised you do not play it aloud if you are in the proximity of dogs, cats, elephants, bottlenose dolphins, the greater wax moth, or beluga whales, but listen at your own discretion. 

A 33,333 hz clip is played

6 Thrilling. 

Having successfully killed 116 bees, Headlee and Burdette moved on to other species of insects. 

A Clip of TAPS begins playing

7 Throughout the cold months of October and December in 1928, 270 insects were killed by hyperthermia. A special tribute is in order to the 87 insects of the periplaneta germanica, otherwise known as the cockroach, who survived the longest of any species, a resounding two minutes and thirteen seconds on average. Not only is the myth of cockroaches surviving a nuclear winter false, they can’t even survive three minutes of 33,333 hz pumped directly next to a glass vial they are encased in. But they will live on forever, behind our refrigerators and under  the radiator.

TAPS ends

8 Burdette and Headlee found that an insect’s morphological structure is integral to its ability to withstand high frequencies. Insects with less developed nervous systems survived for longer, such as the cockroach. This research, however, is now extremely outdated. The paper will reach its centennial in a little over seven years. That does not mean the idea behind the paper is outdated though. As recently as 2004 Juming Tang and his team have been developing similar technology in order to kill insects that live within nuts and dried fruits, as an alternative to pesticides which ultimately harm the environment. He hopes to take it commercial in order to help both the farmers of today and future generations.

A snippet of JUMING TANG’S INTERVIEW plays (0:24-0:34).

9 Although we can certainly question the dubious morals of the seemingly mad scientists of our past, we have to acknowledge the progress they made in their respective fields. Without the research of these two entomologists, a safe way to exterminate pests may have never been found. Their experiments inspire researchers of today to create sustainable solutions to the pesticides poisoning our planet, a threat Burette and Headlee could never have predicted. 

10 The actions of a scientist nearly a century ago might create the solution to an impossible problem today, maybe there really is something to the whole respect your elders thing. 

Instrumental of VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR starts playing

11 So in the end, video may have killed the radio star, but the radio? Well, it might have been the exterminator all along.

VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR lyrical overlaps, grows in volume then diminishes

Instrumental of VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR resumes

12 Thank you to Greg Sands who provided the voice of the announcer and Leah Haw who helped me edit this. Special thanks does not go to General Electric who’s courtesy did not extend to giving me a radio. Most of all, thank you for listening!

Music fades out into static