Ah-CHOO! We know viruses make us sick, but what happens when a virus infects your computer? This episode, go digital with Molly and co-host Chloe as they track down a pesky computer virus infecting Brains On Headquarters. Catch our special guests, podcasting viruses Kara and Gilly, and meet a mysterious hacker named Shark Manchez. Plus, a brand new mystery sound!

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CHLOE: You're listening to Brains On!, where we're serious about being curious.

SUBJECT: Brains On! is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

KARA: Knock, knock.

GILLY: Who's there?

KARA: Two viruses with a dream and a microphone, broadcasting live from a light switch in Brains On! headquarters.

GILLY: That's right.

KARA: I'm Kara.

GILLY: And I'm Gilly. And this is Going Viral with Kara and Gilly.

KARA: Going Viral with Kara and Gilly.


It's been a minute, [? viralenos. ?]

GILLY: As actual microscopic viruses, we were so busy all last winter. Did you see the mucus pouring from everyone's noses?

KARA: That was us.

GILLY: Sneezes coming from every which way.

KARA: That was us, too.

GILLY: Kleenex box is empty from a chorus of nose blows.

KARA: Us, us, us. We're so good at our jobs, which is infecting humans. And aren't humans so cute when they do their little a-a-achoo? I mean, they're all like, oh, I have a cold. Can you help me? I need soup. So adorable.

GILLY: But we can see from our very full email inbox that our [? viralenos ?] missed us a whole lot. And because [? viralenos ?] are almost as adorable as a human sneeze, today's show is going to be us opening and reading these emails one by one.

KARA: (SINGING) What more could you want from a podcast?

All right, here's the first one. Subject line-- you've been infected.

GILLY: Ha, our catch phrase is, stay infectee, but, you know, close enough. It's kind of like how people always call me Jill, and I'm like, it's Gilly, hard G. And they're like, all right. But then the next time I see them, they're like, oh, hey, Jill. I mean, I know Gilly might be an unusual name to them but come on.

KARA: Looks like their question is attached to the email. I'll just open this up and--

GILLY: What's wrong, Kara? Does it say, dear, Jill, again? I can take it. Just tell me.

KARA: No, I can't-- I can't make it work. My email isn't working. Nothing's working. All I can see is a message that says achoo.

GILLY: Let me see. Oh. No, Kara, I think we've got a computer virus.

KARA: A computer virus. No.


MOLLY BLOOM: You're listening to Brains On! from APM Studios. I'm Molly Bloom, and my co-host today is Chloe from Los Angeles. Hi, Chloe.

CHLOE: Hi, Molly.

MOLLY BLOOM: Today Chloe and I are playing our favorite Italian food-themed computer game, Lisa Eats a Pizza. Oh, I need more onions.

CHLOE: Onions, check. Whoa, watch out for the little guy throwing pepperoni.

MOLLY BLOOM: Pepperoni, oh, that's the last ingredient we need for Lisa's pizza. I'll just toss it on here and--

CHLOE: Yes. Nice work, Molly. What's going on?

MOLLY BLOOM: I don't know. Oh, maybe the game froze.

CHLOE: Wait, wait, wait a minute. A message just popped up on the computer screen. Achoo?

MOLLY BLOOM: Achoo? Hmm, looks like we're having some technical difficulties. You know what? I think we might have a computer virus. Some of you have sent in questions about this, like this one we happen to have handy.

CAITLIN: I'm Caitlin.

AMY: And I'm Amy.

CAITLIN: We're from Oak Park, Illinois. And our Brains On! question is, what is a computer virus?

MOLLY BLOOM: It's a great question and now very relevant to our situation here. Chloe, do you use a computer for school or at home?

CHLOE: Yeah, I use one for school, and I also use that one for home.

MOLLY BLOOM: So have you ever seen a computer get a virus?

CHLOE: Yeah, during the pandemic, we had to do a lot of distance learning over the computer. And during the Zoom calls, it would just randomly glitch if I'm talking to my teacher or my friend. And I'll be like, oh my God, why?

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah, glitches happen all the time, and we all got very familiar with those during the pandemic. A virus is a little different than a glitch in that it's something that someone has snuck onto your computer. And sometimes it's hard to even know the virus is there. It might just be on your computer doing its thing and you don't even know, which is kind of bananas. So what do you imagine is happening when a computer gets a virus?

CHLOE: If there's a virus, I feel like I'm imagining it's something really tiny going through the system or the servers and just hacking into whatever's happening. And then sort of like watching YouTube, they're just watching, and the other person doesn't know that they're watching.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah, do you feel like viruses are a big problem or like they don't really happen that much?

CHLOE: I think they're a really big problem when they happen because that's really creepy.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah, you have to really look out for what you're clicking on to keep the viruses off your computer. So when we think about computer viruses, we might think about the kind of viruses that make us sick like the flu or the common cold or the virus behind COVID-19. The viruses that infect our computers are pretty different. They're actually computer programs.

CHLOE: But computer viruses can spread really quickly from machine to machine, kind of like how a person can spread germs or viruses to other people.

MOLLY BLOOM: And they can make your computer sick or at least a computer's version of sick. A virus might shut a computer down or even break it. Sometimes it might lock a computer so you can't get to your files.

CHLOE: And other times, a virus might steal information from your computer. Or it might just hide in the background, watching secretly while you use your computer or device. Creepy.

MOLLY BLOOM: Viruses have been around almost as long as personal computers, and that whole time, they've been creepy, literally. The first computer virus ever created was called Creeper.

CHLOE: It was created in the early 1970s, back when personal computers were just starting to become a thing.

MOLLY BLOOM: The 1970s-- think bell-bottoms, avocado-green kitchens, phones attached to walls with spirally cords connecting the part you talk into to the part where you dial the numbers. TVs only got a few channels, and shows were only on TV at certain times. You couldn't watch what you wanted whenever you wanted. And computers were very big. They definitely couldn't fit in your pocket, and they couldn't do very many things.

CHLOE: And just like those old computers, the first virus didn't do much either.

MOLLY BLOOM: It just spread among the small number of computers that used a very early version of the internet.

CHLOE: And it wasn't created to do bad things. It was created to show that these kinds of viruses could exist at all as a kind of experiment.

MOLLY BLOOM: Once Creeper was on a computer, all it did was show the message-- I'm the creeper, catch me if you can.

CHLOE: But not long after, the first antidote to a computer virus was created. It was called the Reaper. And it was programmed to go computer to computer and get rid of the Creeper virus.

MOLLY BLOOM: I think that's the solution to our problem. We need a digital virus buster of some kind, an antidote.

CHLOE: Right. So we know viruses spread from computer to computer and can stop them from working.

MOLLY BLOOM: When humans get viruses, they call a doctor, so I did the same for our computers.

DR. BYTE: All right, where are those binary buggies? Computer viruses can be nasty, but they are fascinating.

CHLOE: Whoa, cool outfit. Love the khaki, obsessed with all the pockets. Who are you?

DR. BYTE: Dr. Elizabetabyte at your service.

CHLOE: But-- like how we measure data in a computer?

DR. BYTE: Correct. Not like I took a big bite of that sandwich, although I do love sandwiches.

MOLLY BLOOM: Dr. Byte, why do you have a whip?

DR. BYTE: It's a jungle out there, Molly. You never know what kind of perilous programs are lurking in your circuits. But, mostly, I keep it on me for lunch. Snap it fast enough, and you can slice up apples like nobody's business. See? Watch as I throw this apple into the air.

MOLLY BLOOM: Whoa, you're right. It's perfectly sliced.

CHLOE: It landed perfectly in that dish.

DR. BYTE: That's nothing. Check this.

CHLOE: Did you just whipcrack peanut butter onto the apples?

DR. BYTE: It's all in the wrist. Now, tell me about this virus problem.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, we first noticed it when our computer game froze, and now none of our computers at Brains On! headquarters are working.

CHLOE: And all of them have the same message-- achoo.


DR. BYTE: Yep, I'd say you've got a real rare one on your hands here.

CHLOE: But how does the virus work? And how did it freeze all the computers?

DR. BYTE: Well, computers can do all kinds of incredible things, right? Like sending an animated birthday card.

MOLLY BLOOM: Or giving Lisa a pizza to eat.

CHLOE: Or even launching a space shuttle.

DR. BYTE: Yes. And in order for computers to do these things, humans have to give them very specific instructions. Those instructions are called programs.

CHLOE: Oh, yeah, we write those programs in a special language that computers can understand. It's called computer code.

MOLLY BLOOM: And instead of using letters and words to communicate, like humans do, this computer language has just two things-- zeros and ones.

DR. BYTE: Exactly. But it's really confusing and slow for humans to translate what they want into zeros and ones. Say you were trying to tell the computer to display the word unicorn. In computer code language, each of the letters in that word are represented by a different sequence of ones and zeros.

MOLLY BLOOM: But sometimes the humans making the code can be sneaky or up to no good. They write code called malware, which is short for malicious software.

CHLOE: Malicious is another way of saying hurtful or mean.

DR. BYTE: Yep. A virus is one type of malware that's goal is to infect as many computers as possible.

CHLOE: But why is malware attacking all the Brains On! computers?

DR. BYTE: There could be lots of reasons. It all depends on what the person who made the virus wants.

MOLLY BLOOM: Are they trying to push us out of the top spot on the Lisa Eats a Pizza scoreboard? Ooh, I bet it's whoever holds the high score.

DR. BYTE: It might be, or it might not. One of the things people who make viruses are after is personal data, things they can use to steal money, like bank passwords or credit card numbers. But once a virus is in your computer, there's a chance it can see everything you do.

MOLLY BLOOM: Let's say, just a hypothetical here, could it tell how many times somebody googled how to spell baloney?

DR. BYTE: Absolutely.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, no. We've got to take care of this virus. My reputation as Brains On!'s best speller is on the line. If this gets out, I don't know how I'll show my face at Scrabble night again.

CHLOE: What I still don't understand is how this virus got into Brains On! headquarters in the first place.

DR. BYTE: That's easy. Camouflage.

CHLOE: Camouflage?

DR. BYTE: Imagine you're walking through a swamp at dusk. You're having a hard time finding your footing without soaking your sneakers, but you know you're almost home. You're so focused on finding dry places to put your feet that you don't pay attention to the log floating in the water right next to shore.

But step one inch too close, and the log jumps out of the water and tries to snap its jaws closed on your leg. You just barely avoided getting chomped by a deadly predator, all because you thought an alligator looked like a moldy old log. The alligator was blending in, or camouflaged to look like something else. Viruses are like those alligators.

MOLLY BLOOM: They hang out in swamps?

CHLOE: They have long, sharp teeth?

MOLLY BLOOM: I confuse them with crocodiles?

DR. BYTE: Nope, nope, and nope. These virus predators stalk the internet. They might look like a normal file attached to an email or a button on a website promising free coins for your favorite game. Or maybe you think you're downloading a cute video of a kitten.

MOLLY BLOOM: And all of a sudden, you've let the virus onto your computer. Wow, that's sneaky.

CHLOE: But we didn't click any buttons or download any kittens.

DR. BYTE: Hmm, then someone in Brains On! headquarters must have let this virus in.

MOLLY BLOOM: Ha, this is a seriously sticky wicket.

CHLOE: A curious conundrum.

MOLLY BLOOM: A mega mystery. Ooh, that reminds me. Chloe, we've been so focused on this computer virus that we almost forgot about the--

SUBJECT: Mystery sound.

MOLLY BLOOM: Chloe, are you ready for the mystery sound?


MOLLY BLOOM: All right, here it is. Hmm, what do you think?

CHLOE: I think it's like someone sawing wood, maybe. But it got really loud in the middle, so.

MOLLY BLOOM: Hmm, you're right. I don't know what this one is either, so I have no idea. Should we hear it one more time?

CHLOE: Yeah.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK, let's hear it again. OK, any new thoughts hearing it for a second time?

CHLOE: So I think-- I still think it's like sawing wood. But I think in the middle, I heard like a very slight pause, and then someone's like walking. So maybe-- I think someone's sawing wood and then getting more wood and then sawing that wood.

MOLLY BLOOM: Ooh, I love that idea. Or maybe they're sawing wood while they're walking. No, that doesn't sound safe. Don't do that. Don't do that, anybody. Well, we will hear it again and reveal the answer after the credits, so stick around.

We are working on an episode about why we're sometimes afraid of the dark. But the dark is also totally cool. So we want to know what do you love about the dark? Does it feel mysterious, exciting, calming? Do you like telling stories around a campfire? Are you a night owl? Do you think nocturnal animals are awesome? We want to hear from you. Record yourself describing what you love about the dark and send it to us at brainson.org/contact. While you're there, you can also send us mystery sounds, drawings, high fives, and questions.

CHLOE: Like this one.

SUBJECT: Hi, my name is [INAUDIBLE]. I am from Big Rapids, Michigan. My question is, why does food expire?

MOLLY BLOOM: You can find an answer to that question on our Moment of Um podcast. It's a daily dose of facts and curiosity you can find wherever you listen to Brains On! Just search for Moment of Um.

CHLOE: And keep listening. You're listening to Brains On! from APM Studios. I'm Chloe.

MOLLY BLOOM: And I'm Molly. We just learned that computer viruses are a type of malicious software also called malware that moves from computer to computer.

CHLOE: Computer viruses can break your devices or steal your information, and it's easy to accidentally download one.

MOLLY BLOOM: Speaking of which, we're still trying to figure out who downloaded a computer virus here at Brains On! headquarters.

CHLOE: Hmm, I wonder who it could be.


GILLY: Kara, what did you do? We cannot record our podcast if none of the computers are working.

KARA: I didn't do anything. I was just trying to read our fan emails, and I clicked on the attachment that said get infected. And then the computer started sneezing.

GILLY: Kara.

KARA: What?

GILLY: Kara.

KARA: What?

GILLY: You downloaded a computer virus.

KARA: What's wrong with viruses? Gilly, are you a self-loathing virus? I have affirmations we can do. Look in the mirror and say this. I'm a virus. I'm vital. I'm vivacious. Try it with me. I'm a virus.

GILLY: No, no, I love being a virus. But a computer virus isn't one of us. Instead of humans, it infects computers.

KARA: Ew. No. I use those. What do we do?

GILLY: I hate to even suggest this, but maybe there's some sort of medicine, medican-- what do they call it?

KARA: Oh, yeah, medicine.

GILLY: Right. So maybe there's a medicine that can get rid of this virus.

KARA: Great. I'll do a quick internet search here.

GILLY: Kara.

KARA: What?

GILLY: Kara.

KARA: What?

GILLY: We would need a computer to search the internet.

KARA: Oh, no. What can we do without the internet?

MOLLY BLOOM: Things are still haywire with this computer virus here at Brains On! headquarters. And I don't know if Chloe, Dr. Byte, and I are any closer to fixing this thing.

CHLOE: I just miss Lisa and her pizza. I wish this whole thing never happened.

DR. BYTE: You know what might help? Somewhere in these cargo pants, I have-- no, not this pair of garden shears. Hmm, not this meatball sub. Is it in this pocket? No. Why do I even have a sparkly unicorn floaty in here?

MOLLY BLOOM: Dr. Byte, do you need help?

DR. BYTE: Ah, here it is, my walkie-talkies. I can use these even if the computers are down. I'm going to contact one of the best computer programmers I know. Come in, Shark Manchez. Do you read me, Shark Manchez?

MARC SANCHEZ: I read you, Dr. Byte. This is Shark Manchez. Over.

MOLLY BLOOM: Is that Marc?

CHLOE: It does sound a lot like Marc.

DR. BYTE: You know Shark Manchez, the Shark Manchez? I've never actually met him in person. He's a famous white hat hacker. That's someone who fights viruses and other bad things online. He's a true man of mystery.

MOLLY BLOOM: I think I do know this Shark Manchez. In fact, I think he's just on the other side of this wall. Marc, I need you.

MARC SANCHEZ: What is it, Molly? I'm kind of in the middle of something.

DR. BYTE: Shark Manchez, is that you? You all know Shark?

MARC SANCHEZ: Dr. Byte, what are you doing at Brains On! headquarters?

DR. BYTE: You've got quite the virus on your hands here. I was just about to call you in for some help, but I didn't think you'd be here in person. Can I get a selfie with you and [INAUDIBLE]?

MOLLY BLOOM: Marc, our computers have a virus making them go achoo.

MARC SANCHEZ: Oh, man, someone failed the test.

MOLLY BLOOM: What test?

MARC SANCHEZ: I sent an email to everyone on the Brains On! headquarters network with the sneezy wheezy virus attached. It was a test to see who's paying attention to what they're downloading. Someone did not pass the test.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, yeah, I saw that email. The attachment was called get infected. I deleted that without opening it. It did not seem trustworthy.

MARC SANCHEZ: And you were right. As my alter ego, Shark Manchez, I'm always reminding people to think before you click.

DR. BYTE: That's what I always say, too. We should be friends, best friends. No, don't get ahead of yourself, Byte. Friends.

MARC SANCHEZ: Remember, if you see a link or an attachment to an email, stop and ask yourself, could this be a virus? And if an email comes across from someone you don't know or it's asking for personal information, be extra super cautious.

DR. BYTE: Yeah. And if a website has a message pop-up that says free stuff if you click here or you may already be infected and click here for the cure, be wise. A lot of times, those messages are trying to trick you.

MARC SANCHEZ: Exactly. So be smart and help Shark Manchez take a chump out of computer viruses.

DR. BYTE: Oh, that's so good. I need a catchphrase, too. Don't let computer bugs byte you. I'll keep working on it.

MARC SANCHEZ: Luckily for us, I have the antidote for this sneezy wheezy virus right here. There we go. I'll just upload it, and our system should be good to go in 3, 2, 1.

CHLOE: Who would open an attachment that said get infected anyways?


KARA: Hiya, we're two viruses with amazing style and a working computer coming to you from a used Kleenex in Brains On! headquarters. That's right. I'm Kara.

GILLY: And I'm Gilly. And this is Going Viral with Kara and Gilly.

KARA: Going Viral with Kara and Gilly. And we beat the computer virus. I don't know how we did it, but all of a sudden, my computer started working again.

GILLY: Well, of course, no computer virus would ever dare mess with you and me. We're the real deal.

KARA: Obvs.

GILLY: And we can get back to reading our listener emails. Who's up first?

KARA: First up, we have an email from Jerry7249085602@notarealemail.com.

GILLY: Kara.

KARA: What? Ooh, and there's an attachment.

GILLY: Kara.

KARA: What? Ooh, the attachment says download for free trip up a human nose in Hawaii. I've always wanted to infect someone on a tropical island. Don't mind if I do.

GILLY: Kara, no.

MOLLY BLOOM: Computer viruses are computer programs that can sneak onto your computer.

CHLOE: They've been around for almost as long as we've had computers that can connect to each other.

MOLLY BLOOM: The first virus was a harmless experiment, but now people usually create viruses to steal information.

CHLOE: The best way to protect yourself is to always be careful about what you're clicking on, and always ask an adult for help.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's it for this episode of Brains On!

CHLOE: This episode was produced by Molly Quinlan, Anna Weggel, Molly Bloom, Aron Woldeslassie, Nico Gonzalez Wisler, Rosie DuPont, Anna Goldfield, Ruby Guthrie, and Shark Manchez. Oh, Marc Sanchez.

MOLLY BLOOM: Our editors are Sanden Totten and Shahla Farzan. This episode was sound designed by Marc Sanchez, and we had engineering help from Jay Siebold and Michael Osborne. Beth Pearlman is our executive producer. The executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati, Alex Schaffert, and Joanne Griffith. Special thanks to Tracy Mumford, [? Sue ?] [? Min ?] [? Young, ?] and Max and his little league team, the Cardinals.

CHLOE: Brains On! Is a non-profit public radio program.

MOLLY BLOOM: There are lots of ways to support the show. Head to brainson.org.

CHLOE: While you're there, you can subscribe to our Smarty Pass, which lets you listen to ad-free episodes and other super special bonus content.

MOLLY BLOOM: And you can submit your questions and fan art. Have I mentioned how much we love your fan art? We cannot get enough of it. All right, Chloe, are you ready to listen to that mystery sound again?

CHLOE: Of course.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK, here it is again. New thoughts, do we have any?

CHLOE: I still think it's the wood, but I'm not getting-- I think the footsteps' probably just him-- or the person readjusting themselves. Maybe they're grunting. Oh, wait, actually, maybe it's a pig grunting. Maybe it's a pig grunting.

MOLLY BLOOM: Ooh, it's a pig sawing wood.

CHLOE: Yeah.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's the second pig from The Three Little Pigs sawing wood to make his house of wood--


MOLLY BLOOM: --before the Big Bad Wolf blows it down. OK, we figured it out. All right, I'm positive that's the answer. Should we hear the answer.

CHLOE: Yeah.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK, here it is.

SAMUEL: I'm Samuel, and that was me and my mom pulling the fibrous strands out of a pumpkin.


MOLLY BLOOM: Oh. We were not close. It wasn't a little pig, but it was a pumpkin. And I think pigs like to eat pumpkins. I feel like I've heard that before.

CHLOE: Maybe the pumpkin patch was near their house.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yes. OK, so that's like when you're scraping out the inside of a pumpkin. Have you done that before?

CHLOE: Yeah. Me and my friends, we do that every Halloween.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yes. So you scrape them out first, getting all that goo out. OK, I'm giving us partial credit because pumpkins are also plants that are hard, just like trees and wood are hard. Is that a stretch? OK, we did it.

CHLOE: Half point. Yep.

MOLLY BLOOM: Half point for us.

Now it's time for the latest group of listeners to join the Brain's Honor Roll. These are the people who send us mystery sounds, pictures, drawings, and questions to help fuel the show.



We'll be back next week with more answers to your questions.

CHLOE: Thanks for listening.

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