SGU Episode 150

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SGU Episode 150
June 4th 2008
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 149                      SGU 151

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

E: Evan Bernstein


WI: Walter Isaacson

Quote of the Week

A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restored given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that every literature major should take a watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.

Walter Isaacson

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 4th, 2008, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hi, everyone.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, everyone. On this day in 1783, the Montgolfier brothers publicly displayed their hot air balloon.

S: Is that right?

B: Oh, so that's why Google changed their image to a balloon.

E: That's right. Very good, Bob; I noticed that too.

B: I thought that might be it. Excellent.

E: And that's what... made me bring that up tonight. So.

R: So the hot air balloon was more important than women gaining the right to vote... in America.

E: Women can vote?

S: (laughs) Well, also, what happened 40 years ago today?

E: Ooh... 40 years ago.

S: Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

R: Oh, yeah.

E: Right.

B: Wow.

S: This is a momentous day.

E: What a day.

B: How about 50 years ago today?


R: You made something up?

S: I don't know.

B: My buddy at work was born.

S: (laughs)

R: Wow!

S: How did I miss that?

B: Today was his 50th birthday.

E: Why isn't that in Wikipedia?

R: Happy birthday, random dude we don't know.

B: Doug. His name is Doug.

S: But all of those historical events will pale in comparison to today, which is the SGU 150th episode.

E: 1-5-0.

B: No way! Whoa.

R: Oh. All right.

B: Cool.

E: Where are the balloons? I thought we were releasing balloons or something. Oh well.

S: Something; doves or whatever. We have an excellent interview coming up later in the show with Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein. But first, some news items.

News Items[edit]

New Alien Video (1:50)[edit]

  • Stan Romanek:

S: The big skeptical news from the past week is a new alien video. And...

R: Oooh.

E: Ha!

S: You could see this coming a mile away. A gentleman by the name of Jeff Peckman, who is trying to put forward this proposal for an extraterrestrial affairs commission in his hometown of Denver, Colorado. He thinks that we need to set up a commission to deal with the inevitable interaction we're going to have with aliens when they make themselves known to us. Well he announced last week that—last Friday—he was going to be showing to the press what he claims is an authentic video of a alien, an extraterrestrial. Now... (chuckles) we weren't expecting much and we didn't get much. Actually, the video itself, although it was shown to the press, was not made public.

R: Right; we got a still from it, though, which—

S: Yeah.

R: I mean, that's enough to convince me. Definitely an alien.

S: So there's a still photo; it's... so, here's the story. And Jeff Peckman is not the originator of this video; he got it from Stan Romanek. Stan Romanek—go to and you can read all about this guy—he claims to have the most scientifically documented on-going extraterrestrial contact in history, which is a claim to fame that Billy Meier, the Swiss farmer, claims for himself. So these guys could duel it out and say who has the most documented on-going alien encounter. But go to the website; obviously the guy's a crank. I mean, he's got the same lame, blurry, worthless photos. You know, if you've been having... ten years, hundreds of encounters with aliens, that's the best you could come up with? The same lame, blurry photos that anyone could come up with? Completely unconvincing. And you have to be suspicious of someone who's having repeated rare, random encounters with aliens. Or I guess, I suppose he thinks that they're so interested in him individually that they just keep coming back. So he claims that he thought that there was somebody sneaking and peeping around his house, so he set up an infrared camera at his bedroom window to catch the peeper. And lo and behold, he captured an alien peeping in through his bedroom window in infrared. Now, there's multiple problems with that. And as Rebecca said, all we have from that is a still, which is kind of a low-res picture of his bedroom window with, you know, a blurry typical gray alien-type of head poking up, looking through the window.

R: Yeah, it's pretty pathetic.

B: It doesn't look like an infrared picture to me.

S: Well, I mean, I think... it's not clear based upon that still whether it's infrared or not. And I think it's been enhanced, and actually, there's an enhanced enhanced version of it so you can see the alien better. But you know, it's just a pixelly, kind of blurry, pretty generic alien head.

R: What I find funny is that there's some skeptics who... they created a video that was meant to show the press that "hey, we can do it, too".

E: Yeah, I saw that.

R: Is that really necessary at this point? I mean, isn't it like, come on. It's some kook with a video of an alien peeking through his bedroom window. Do we really need to go to the trouble to put together a video debunking this?

S: Yeah, but it was interesting, because Peckman specifically claimed that this would've taken a Hollywood studio tens of thousands of dollars to produce. And so people said, "really? OK. Here, I did it for a hundred bucks in an hour." Yeah, or in a couple of hours. And then everyone started doing it; it starts proliferating; now on YouTube there's multiple versions of the fake video that look just as good as—

B: Probably better.

S: Yeah, probably even better than what the video probably looks like based upon that still.

E: I seem to recall the same thing happening with the alien autopsy video from the '90s.

S: Exactly.

E: —is that people came out and said, "look, we can do it and we can do it even better".

R: The one that ended up on Fox?

S: Yeah. Right. So, that took away that claim, that this would be hard to fake and expensive and difficult/

R: I guess I'm just depressed that anybody is giving this any credence. Like, "hey, everybody, I have proof aliens exist. I'm only going to show it to my cat, but you'll just have to take my word for it. Now spread the word."

E: Not just giving this credence, Rebecca; this was front-page news splashed all over the Internet. It really was—

R: Yeah, it's really pathetic.

E: It was top, top story.

S: Now, my sense is that—I mean, I think Stan Romanek is a delusional believer. That's my impression from reading his website. I mean, it could be just a hoaxer, too. But, and you know, being a hoaxer and a believer's not mutually incompatible; he may be doing this so that people will believe him. You know, the so-called pious fraud. Peckman... this guy's interesting history, too. He owns a company that sells the Metatron Personal Harmonizer, which read this website. I mean, this is really just techno-babble gobbledygook about aligning the electromagnetic waves from your computer and your electrical devices to... whatever, to make you harmonize with the universe. It really is—

B: You had me at Metatron, dude.

S: Yeah. It's something out of Transformers. Who was that, Megatron? He went to the Maharishi University of Management; he ran for the Senate under the Natural Law Party, which is the party of the Maharishi. So he has a long history of being a kook, basically. Peckman. What he said on one of his interviews was that... "well, I don't want to get all caught up in whether or not this video is real or anything. And in and of itself, the video is not that convincing. But if you put it in the context of all the other evidence for extraterrestrials" and then he sort of runs down the same, lame list of stuff that's been around for years. So he's really using this, I think, as a publicity stunt to sell the rest of the UFO evidence. But I think he may suspect that there's something fishy about it. So he doesn't want to pin his hopes on this video. 'Cause if this video gets shown definitely to be a fraud, he doesn't want to say... well, that's like the only piece of evidence that he was pinning his hopes on. He just wants it to be the foot in the door for all the other crappy evidence that he has.

E: Right. To pin your hope on a video as evidence for anything is hardly evidence at all.

B: So it's like a bait and switch... in a sense.

S: Yeah. It's lame. It's all a publicity stunt.

E: Well, it worked. That part of it worked.

S: Yeah. It's true; it did work as a publicity stunt, and Stan Romanek—

E: Sure did.

B: Oh, yeah.

R: We're reporting it.

S: —has a documentary coming out, where the video will be shown. So this is a teaser. This is a teaser for this guy's documentary. For Peckman's extraterrestrial affairs commission. That's what this is. It's all crap.

B: Coming attractions.

E: Well, he got on Larry King to talk about it, so.

S: Yep, yep. Let's move on, 'cause we've wasted enough time on this.

B: Oh, yeah.

Solar Power from Space (8:53)[edit]

S: The next news item has to do with harvesting sunlight from outer space.

R: That's the best place to get it; it's everywhere!

B: Pretty much. I've been waiting for this for a long time.

E: Well here it is.

B: For years, I've been saying, just put the stupid thing in space or on the moon and we'll be good. But it seems that this whole idea has been reinvigorated and reinvestigated. It's been around, like I said, since the '70s but it's always been seen as prohibitively expensive. NASA actually did an assessment in the '70s trying to figure out what this thing would cost and they came up with a number like around one trillion dollars.

S: Yeah.

S/E: It's expensive.

B: How much is that in 2008 money? I mean, that's a lot of money, but it might not even be fair to compare it because lots of costs have come down. I'm not sure what it would cost today, but surprisingly, India and China are the ones that are really pushing this, which kind of makes sense if you think about it, 'cause their energy needs are just exploding, so much that they've gotta really look at all their options. Even though the price tag definitely will be hefty—maybe not a trillion but tons of money...

Dr. Evil from Austin Powers: (dramatically) One hundred billion dollars

The arguments being made, and it makes sense to me, that you could use this to bolster your economy for decades through energy trading. So you foot the bill for this, which would be a lot, but then you could sell off the energy in various ways and make tons of money for quite amount of time. The energy—I mean, one obvious way to get it down would be to beam the energy down, and obviously people are thinking, "oh, wow, what's going to happen if you walk into the beam or a plane or a bird flies through it" but actually, if you use low-energy microwaves, you could—birds could fly right through it and it really wouldn't be a problem.

E: Well, what kind of loss do you experience in a transfer like that?

B: Actually, when you go from DC to microwave, from what I've read, it's very efficient. Surprisingly efficient. There is some loss, obviously, but—

S: There has to be.

B: —not as much as you would think. Other problems people have come up with are debris. Oh, what's going to happen if this gets hit with all the debris that's up there, especially all the debris that us and China have been causing. But actually, this would be in geosynchronous orbit, where there is essentially almost no real debris up when you get really that high. The debris problem really is in low-Earth orbit and not that really high geosynchronous orbit, so that really wouldn't be much of a problem.

S: But the repair would be difficult, especially in the high orbit. Repair and maintenance of this.

B: Well, yeah, it would be a big problem, because you can't—the Shuttle's not going to be going up there. And another big problem that I see is that this technology is changing so fast—

S: Yeah, I agree.

B: —by the time you get it up there, it's like, well, we got something that's 20 times more efficient. So you're going to have to—we'll be taking a hit in terms of the efficiency, 'cause very quickly it would change.

S: It seems like a great idea eventually

B: Right.

S: My sense is it may be a little bit premature to start such a project right now. But you know, somebody like NASA needs to do the real hard calculations. One thing I thought was interesting... This is from the Pentagon's National Security Space Office 2007 report, trying to give an example of how impressive the potential of this would be, said that "a single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous Earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today."

B: That really puts it into perspective right there.

S: Yeah... I agree that sounds impressive, but then I was thinking, "wow, a one-kilometer-wide band all the way around the Earth in synchronous orbit" and I calculated that out—if I did the calculation correct, that's 1.6 billion miles of kilometer-wide solar panels.

E: That's a lot.

B: I wasn't interpreting it as a contiguous band completely around.

S: That's what—I was trying to figure that out too, but that's what I think he's saying: a band of geosynchronous Earth orbit.

B: I interpret it as a kilometer wide, and...

S: But then how long? You have to say how long. I think it's all the way around the Earth. In which case, it's not that impressive. 'Cause that's—

B: No, then it's not.

S: —1.6 billion miles of solar panels. That's not that impressive.

E: Would a solar flare screw this thing up and like totally trash it?

S: Oh yeah. I mean, solar flares are nasty. Especially up high, totally outside of the magnetic field of the Earth—

B: Magnetosphere.

S: —wouldn't be any protection.

E: Would you want your multi-trillion dollar investment up there floating and being exposed to—

R: Yeah, but what are the chances of a solar flare actually smacking it?

S: It'll happen on a regular basis.

B: Well, how—Steve, I don't think it'll be as bad as you think; I mean, how are geosynchronous satellites handling them now?

S: Yeah, I mean, so it would have to be taken into consideration; it would have to be built to tolerances so that—

B: Right. Absolutely.

S: —the electronics wouldn't get fried every time there's a solar flare.

B: Right, and you could also determine when one is coming and shut down key electronics. They shut down satellites a lot for stuff like this and they might be able to do the same thing for this kind of technology.

S: Right. Well, interesting; I think this is something that we will see eventually, but I don't think it's going to be anything any time in the near future.

Green Our Vaccines Rally in DC (14:07)[edit]

S: A quick follow-up on the whole vaccine-autism controversy: Another thing that's happening is a march on Washington, DC for "Green our Vaccines", which is a movement... this is an event that's being promoted by a lot of the anti-vaccinationist sites, the ones that believe that there is a link between vaccines and autism. There isn't; I have to say that every time we bring up this topic. This is being promoted primarily by Jenny McCarthy

R: And her boyfriend now, Jim Carrey.

E: The Mask

S: They were interviewed on "Good Morning America" this morning, and it was sickening, you know, because the interview just too softball; didn't really challenge them on the anti-scientific nonsense that they're spouting—threw out a couple of, like, disclaimers; like really quick disclaimers, then it cuts to the nice piano music showing Jenny McCarthy with her son, Evan, who had autism, apparently and showing how wonderful their life is now that she discovered all this pseudo-scientific crap that she's putting forward. So, again, it was almost like a propaganda piece for this with just a little token skeptical disclaimers thrown in there by the interviewers; just terrible. These campaigns are successful because that's the kind of press they get; the whole "Green our Vaccines" slogan is a pretty punchy slogan; I think that's probably gonna work for them. They're trying to make this point that they're not anti-vaccine, but it just doesn't sell. If you really look at what they're saying, they're saying, "oh no, we're not anti-vaccine; we just want our vaccines to be safer. We're pro- safe vaccine." But then when you really dig down on their rhetoric, it's like, no, they're really cutting off vaccines at every pass. When you really get down to it, it's all about the vaccines. It's about just being anti-vaccinationist.

McCarthy reiterated some of the real howlers that she has been called on for months. So it shows that she's either not reading the material; she's not reading criticism of her position or she doesn't care. She said, for example, that vaccines have ether in them and antifreeze. So this is like the latest strategy now of the anti-vaccinationists. Now that the mercury gambit has totally failed— you know, five years ago, it was quote-unquote "it's the mercury, stupid", right? They were saying mercury, mercury, mercury, mercury. Well, five years of scientific research has shown it's not the mercury. So now they're saying, well OK, it's all the other toxins in vaccines. Again, it was just to let you know it's the vaccines that's getting them. So, antifreeze—there's no antifreeze in vaccines; that's absurd.

R: Where does that even come from? Like, where do you even get that?

S: Yeah, it's not even clear where the antifreeze claim comes from. Essentially what's happening is that these baboons are reading the chemical ingredients that go into the manufacture and the final product of vaccines and they don't understand the chemistry. So they're just pulling out scary-sounding or scary-looking chemical names but they have no concept of what they're talking about. There's no ethylene or diethylene glycol, which is what antifreeze is, in vaccines. They're probably just mis-identifying chemicals that are used as constituents of other things, right? So it's like saying, "there's chlorine in salt". Yeah, 'cause it's sodium chloride. It's exactly like that. It's that lame. You know, when you combine one chemical with another, you get a different chemical, with different chemical properties, right? Yeah, chlorine is a terrible poison; sodium chloride is salt. It's that naive. She also says there's ether in vaccines. Ether. There's no ether in vaccines. Ether isn't soluble anyway. But what there is is something called Triton X-100, which in older versions was replaced by a compound called Tween-ether, but that's a brand name. But these are not ether; these are just—the chemical names maybe contain the word "ether" as part of the long chemical name. But there's no ether in vaccines either. So those are demonstrably factually wrong; it's just complete chemical scientific ignorance combined with ideology.

Here's my favorite one, though. So on the "Good Morning America", she specifically reiterated antifreeze and ether, which is nonsense. But my favorite one from the placards that are being used in the march and from this movement is that it contains hydrochloric acid, which says "can destroy tissue upon direct contact". Now... (chuckles) this is how ridiculous this is.

B: Wow.

S: The pH of vaccines is titrated so that it's perfectly neutral, right? So pH is a measure of how acidic versus basic something is. A pH of 7 means that it's neutral; it's not reactive at all, in terms of pH. If you have something that's basic, you can add an acid to it in order to bring the pH to neutral.

B: You mean alkaline; alkaline's the same as basic?

S: Yeah. Yes. Yes. That's correct.

B: I wasn't familiar...

S: It's acid and base. Or alkaline is another word for basic. So if... what they're doing is they're using hydrochloric acid to titrate the pH so that it's neutral; so that it's not alkaline or acidic.

B: Wow.

S: But it has—quote-unquote "has hydrochloric acid in it" is, like, to misunderstand high-school chemistry, you know?

E: It really is remarkable to what extent they'll go to scare people.

S: Yeah. Right.

E: I mean, that's clearly all this is.

S: It's absolute ignorant scare tactics. Demonstrably so.

E: And Steve, if they think that scientists or whomever is putting something deliberately sort of harmful in these things, I mean, you have to have sort of this total cynicism of science and doctors and everything. I mean, it comes down to almost a... not just a disbelief in the medicine they practice; almost like an anger towards them; a hatred to a certain degree.

S: Well, it gets to a full-blown conspiracy theory.

R: Yeah, it's the whole Big Pharma idea, like there's this conglomeration of...

S: The FDA, the CDC, pediatricians, the government, Big Pharma; they're all in on it.

E: Chemtrails.

S: Yeah. Chemtrails, yeah. Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s big on that; about the whole conspiracy angle of this. So anyway, they had their little march today, and it's getting them the press that they're looking for, unfortunately.

E: Steve, just a follow-up to this, Steve, is that... where are the scientists, the doctors, the people who work for these news outlets and these people who are covering the Jenny McCarthys and her ilk. Where are these people with the balance and they bring on the scientists instead to correct these total falsehoods and misperceptions.

S: Yeah, there isn't a lot of balance in the mainstream media for this event, because you've got Jenny McCarthy—

R: Jim Carrey; you have kids with diseases that are hot right now. I mean, there's basically no way to nicely come out and say that they're wrong, and I think because of that, the news media just sort of goes along with it.

S: Right.

R: Like, "look at this cute little kid with autism; don't you feel sorry for him; are you to tell him he's wrong?" You know, you can't.

E: But the news—my point is, the news organizations know that there is a whole another side to this that is vehemently against it, and they choose to largely ignore that side.

S: Well, they're not doing their homework and they're getting hoodwinked.

R: Yeah, I don't know that they do know. Like, they should know.

E: Oh, my God.

R: Like, they should know, but I think your calling them "news organizations" is doing them quite a bit of—that's quite the compliment—

S: Well, I mean, they are; "Good Morning America" is a news show; I mean, you know.

R: It's really not. It's—

E: I know what you're saying, Rebecca—

B: It's "infotainment".

R: —but it's not a news show; they don't do any...

E: But you're telling me nobody at ABC somewhere is saying, "this is... we've gotta get the other side on this"...

R: There might be. There might be a few people, but you know, when it comes to what actually gets on air, it's being put on by a bunch of people who are concerned about ratings and not truth. That's what it all boils down to; it's numbers and not facts.

S: And they're selling this as a fight against autism. That's the bait and switch, too. Then you're going to think, "oh, there's a bunch of parents getting together to help fight autism; how wonderful." Not that this is a cover for the antivaccinationist kooks, you know, who are trying to drum up all the scare tactics about toxins in vaccines. But there has been a professional backlash; so there is an open letter by a number of—by physicians and scientists and organizations against this rally and against the antivaccinationists pointing out all of their scientific errors and all of the recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases that is being created by this antivaccinationist movement. So there is a backlash, professionally.

R: Yeah, and you know, and the listeners of this show can contribute, if you're interested in letting the producers of "Good Morning America" know that this isn't news and that that's not what you want to hear, then please by all means, send them letters, because they do read them; they do listen. And if a significant portion of their audience is saying, "we don't want to tune in to this crap until you put on a real scientist to talk about the topic", then maybe you'll start to see change, because that's going to affect their bottom line.

New Zealand CAM Follow up (24:10)[edit]

S: One more quick follow-up: last week we reported on a commission that was set up in New Zealand to investigate complementary and alternate medicine. It turns out that that news item was actually out of date, which I didn't realize at the time when I was gathering the information on it, that that commission, the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Complementary and Alternative Health, has actually already completed and delivered its findings to the government of New Zealand. But I do have a follow-up on some of the results of that. A lot of this is provided by listener Ben, who is from New Zealand. For example, they recommended that health care education and training should be encouraged to include elements of CAM, complementary and alternate medicine. Not a surprise. Research should be undertaken to establish best practice for the integration of approved CAM modalities with bio-medicine. Again, not a surprise. It's pretty much pandering to the political correctness of anti-scientific medicine. Anyway, wanted to bring you up to date on that item from last week.

Questions and E-mails (25:16)[edit]

Cold Fusion[edit]

S: Let's go on to some questions and e-mails. The first one comes from Sam Spreull in Brighton, UK, and he writes:

I just stumbled upon an article online that seems to ridicule the idea of cold fusion as supposedly described in this article

And he gives a link.

along with the likes of perpetual motion machines. I understand why a perpetual motion machine can't theoretically be possible. Could you please explain if cold fusion is as unlikely to be possible.

B: I went to the link that Sam references in his e-mail. Thanks for the question, Sam. It's about a emeritus physics professor, Yoshiaki Arata at Osaka University, and he's claiming that he's got a new experiment that he ran for the press that is causing excess heat that cannot be explained, and to his mind, only cold fusion can explain it. Conventional chemical reactions can't do it. For those of you unsure about fusion, it's the source that powers the stars; the sun and stars essentially combine hydrogen into helium, producing energy. The sun every second is converting 600 million tons of hydrogen into 596 million tons of helium. The 4 million tons extra is converted into the energy that's radiated away from the sun, actually propping up the sun, preventing it from collapsing in on itself and of course, allowing life to exist on the Earth.

S: Good old "E equals mc squared".

B: Right. This type of energy production is so efficient that it's been compared to a car traveling 7,000 miles on one gallon of gas. So obviously, huge, huge potential there. And which, of course, has driven our hot fusion research for many decades now. It would be... God, we spent forty years, millions of man-hours trying to recreate, on the Earth, the pressures and the hellish temperatures required to fuse hydrogen into helium.

S: Without having a hydrogen bomb, which we can do.

B: Right, right. Controlled—OK, controlled fusion reaction.

S: Yeah, that's the key; we could do it; we could blow things up. But I mean, a controlled, sustained fusion, hot fusion; we don't know how to do that.

B: Yeah. And then running your house on those nukes would be kinda tough. How would you direct it? But the problem, of course, for the past forty years has been that it's always seemed just a few decades away. They are making progress, but it just seems just beyond our reach. Now enter cold fusion, which by contrast, is said to produce abundant clean, clean energy that hot fusion could provide, but at room temperature, which would do away with the need for the temperatures and pressures that the hot fusion would require. Now, the huge radioactive elephant in the room now, of course, is from 1989; the experiments that Pons and Fleishman conducted in '89 which they used as their announcement to the world that they've produced nuclear fusion, cold fusion, in a glass jar at room temperature. Steve, I don't know if you remember those days, but—

S: Oh, yeah.

B: —for a while there, I was so excited about Mr. Fusion in the back of my car.

S: It was very short-lived, though, Bob, right?

B: It was; it was very short-lived.

S: For a day, we were like, "Is this really true?" and then no.

B: Right. Those nasty skeptics started mouthing off about things like "lack of reproducibility", "theoretical feasibility"; nasty stuff like that—

E: Bunch of wet blankets.

B: —and then Nature magazine ran an editorial claiming that they believe that cold fusion was unfounded. And then one of the big nails in the coffin was the U.S. Department of Energy, the DOE, issued a report claims that the experiments did not provide convincing evidence that useful sources of energy will result from cold fusion.

S: What this did do is give a huge boon to the quote-unquote "free energy" movement. Again, the small, fringe movement of people who think that cold fusion is not only possible, but the technology exists. But "Big Oil" and the government are hiding it from the world.

B: Yeah, conspiracy. All that stuff. Cold-fusion scientist and retired Los Alamos chemist Edmund Storms said the following regarding this. He said, "conventional science requires you to play by certain rules. First, thou shall not announce thy results via a press conference. Second, thou shall not exaggerate the results. Third, thou shall tell other scientists precisely what thou did." They broke all those rules.

S: Yeah.

B: So what's the bottom line here? What are the biggest problems with cold fusion? As I see it, from the research I've done, the lack of consistent and reproducible results is really big. That's something that just has not really happened.

S: One thing that, again, helps put this in perspective is that what these experiments—these cold fusion experiments are based upon, is the measurement of this little bit extra heat that they can't fully explain. And they say, "see that extra heat? That's cold fusion."

E: Sounds like a "God of the gaps" kind of argument.

S: Yeah, and it's ultimately an argument of exclusion, that you know, we've excluded all other sources of heat. So, it's really easy to make a mistake, especially if you're dealing with a very small amount of heat. If you've just failed to do your math right, or you've failed to account for some exogenous heat, which usually what turns out to be the case. Just that tiny mistake and there you go; that explains away your experiment. It's kind of a set-up, you know, for these false-positive premature announcements, you know?

B: The good thing related to that, though, Steve, is that... all right, say these scientists are claiming a certain level of excess heat. If you're claiming fusion, then therefore, there should be certain quantities of certain nuclear by-products. Depending on the type of fusion you're claiming, whether it's deuterium or proton-proton, or deuterium-proton, there's different types of—way that hydrogen can fuse into helium. You would expect—you would actually require something like neutrons or gamma rays or helium or neutrinos. These things should exist, and the problem is with all of these experiments is that either they do not exist; there are no by-products like this, or they exist in quantities that are orders of magnitude smaller than what they should be, given the heat that is being claimed. So this is a huge problem. Some people would then say to me, "well how do you explain even small quantities of, say, helium?" And the small quantities can be explained for lots of these things. Like, there's helium in the atmosphere.

S: It's funny; it kind of reminds me of ESP research—

B: Yes.

S: —because they're looking at these small sort of residual effects that they can't fully explain and saying that that's evidence for whatever it is that they're looking for.

B: It's similar. And then my final point here is why some of the biggest problem is no theoretical support for cold fusion. Like ESP, there's really nothing to hang their hat on, in terms of science; you know, proven science. If you don't have the temperature and pressure, you're not squeezing these protons together to overcome the electrical repulsion; that's why the heat and pressures are needed, to overcome this Coulomb barrier, as it's called. So one of the ways they think it's happening is by quantum tunneling. Quantum tunneling is one of those magical, you know, effects in the quantum realm where subatomic particles can actually penetrate that they have no right penetrating, like a person walking through a wall. But because of quantum tunneling, this effect, you can have particles going through barriers. So they're proposing that, through quantum tunneling, you've got, say, a proton, going—quantum tunneling through this barrier, this Coulomb barrier and overcoming the electrical repulsion and getting close enough to the other proton to fuse so that the strong force can take over. The problem is, though, is that the rate of quantum tunneling you've have to have is about 40 or 50 orders of magnitude higher than what it should be.

S: Yeah. That's a non-trivial problem.

B: And there's some other theoretical reasons. Some of them are pretty technical...

S: So there's major theoretical problems with cold fusion; it's not just a technological barrier that hasn't been broken. But it's not quite as bad as perpetual motion machines. We can prove that perpetual motion is impossible based upon pretty well established laws of the universe. Cold fusion—it's just that there's no theoretical—we don't know, theoretically, how it could be possible. There's lots of reasons to think that it may not be possible, but there isn't the same kind of proof that it's impossible that there is with perpetual motion machines.

B: Right; perpetual motion is basically going against the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and you don't want to mess with thermodynamics. And that just makes it very, very blatant, and I think much more of an affront to science than even cold fusion, which is kinda nasty, but I would not put it on the level of perpetual motion. Not yet, anyway.

S: Right. Well, let's go on to our interview.

Interview with Walter Isaacson (34:39)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Walter Isaacson. Walter, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

WI: Thank you. It's wonderful to be with you.

S: Walter is the CEO of the Aspen Institute; he has been the chairman of CNN and the Managing Editor of Time magazine. He's the author of several biographies, including Benjamin Franklin and Kissinger. But he is here to speak with us tonight about his biography of Einstein, His Life and Universe. So Walter, first, why don't you just tell us how you decided to write a biography of Albert Einstein.

WI: Well, couple of reasons. First of all, I had done Benjamin Franklin. And one of the things I was surprised to learn about Franklin is that he was a great scientist. We sometimes think of him as a doddering old dude flying a kite in the rain, but those electricity experiments were wonderful experiments and they were to science in that period what Newton's theory of gravity had been for a generation before. Now realize that our founders were very, very aware of science and that we sometimes don't feel that we have to be scientists—we have understand scientists unless we're scientists. We get intimidated by science. So I wanted to pick somebody who would re-introduce those of us who aren't scientists to the magic and the beauty of science. And also we had selected him as Time's Person of the Century and when I was writing the cover story explaining why we selected him as Time's Person of the Century, I realized there'd be a whole lot of his personal papers coming out in 2006, and it'd be fun to write a biography based on them.

S: And Einstein was perhaps the perfect choice to re-romanticize, if you will, science, because he was the first and maybe the only real scientist superstar. I mean, how did that happen; how did he become such a superstar of science?

WI: Well, partly it was just his halo of hair and his glittering eyes and his wonderful personality. Secondly, he totally revolutionized science, but in a way that the normal person could try to understand. For example, the notion that gravity is the bending and curving of space, or that time slows down when you're moving real fast, or that energy and mass are related by that very elegant equation "E equals mc squared". So when he was finally proven right after everyone was so skeptical about his theories, it came because they measured the stars behind the Sun during a solar eclipse and saw that he was right, that the gravitational field of the Sun had curved the universe and shifted where the stars appeared to be, and he'd become suddenly the world's greatest super-celebrity, up there with Charlie Chaplin and Charles Lindbergh.

S: So you think it was partly the sudden confirmation of theories, which up to that point had been controversial. Now the world suddenly accepted a complete change in our concept of how the universe is built.

WI: Total change. It wasn't sort of Newton's theory of gravity revised. Newton had said that gravity was the attraction between two objects at a distance. It was a totally new theory, that gravity is simply when objects curve the fabric of space. And when he was suddenly proven right, and there he is, sort of that amazing-looking guy with those piercing eyes and the wild halo of hair. And he enjoyed fame; he shows up at the opening of City Lights with Charlie Chaplin; he gives great interviews to the press. So he was one of the first people in that new age of celebrity that came with the birth of newsreels and movies and radio and sort of tabloid newspapers.

S: And in your book, you mentioned a couple of other sort of social forces at the time that conspired to make him the celebrity that he was. How much do you think the fact that this was the end of World War I and the world was looking for a celebrity, a trans-national celebrity, to maybe get past the trauma of World War I? How much of a role do you think that played?

WI: That's a great question. I do think that at the end of this most horrible of all wars—we had never seen a war like this—people were looking not only for a celebrity, but here you have a German Jewish pacifist scientist, and his theory is proven correct by an astronomer who measures the stars during the eclipse of 1919, and it's a pacifist Quaker British astronomer. And so you have two people from the two different sides of the war in World War I, who are proving that our universe is different. So I think there was that yearning for just something new to come along.

S: And you also mentioned as another sort of social context for the theory of relativity was that the Classical world, in general, was sort of crumbling and relativism was sort of taking hold at this time.

WI: You look at the years between 1905, when Einstein comes up with his theory of Special relativity, which is that time slows down depending on you're moving real fast compared to somebody else, and then his General theory of relativity, which is the curving of space. That period you see a whole burst of modernism somewhat connected to the idea of relativity. You see Picasso, Kandinsky and all these people changing art. You see Stravinsky changing music; you see Joyce and Proust changing literature, and they're all doing it by changing the notion of the classical bonds and changing the notion that time is absolute or space is absolute. And so it's an amazing burst of creativity, somewhat connected to this whole idea of relativism.

Special and General Relativity[edit]

S: So, in a way, his celebrity was sort of the confluence of all these factors. But I want to back up now and talk about how he came up with Special and General relativity in the first place, 'cause I think you write, very convincingly, that to come up with these theories, he also had to be the right kind of genius in the right place at the right time. Can you tell us about that?

WI: He was a guy who thought out of the box. Totally creative, totally imaginative. He may not have been the best educated scientist in Europe at the time; in fact, he was only a third-class patent clerk in 1905 when he revolutionizes science. And it wasn't just that he was smart, it's that when people like Max Planck, who was, you know, the world's most famous scientist at the time, or people like Lorentz, looked at things, they didn't think as creatively or as imaginatively as Einstein. He made these visual leaps and said, "well, how do we know that time is the same for everybody?" And so, I think it's that rebelliousness, those visual leaps, that creativity and imagination that sets him apart.

S: So he was willing to go places these other guys were not willing to go, even though they may have seen some of the same things that he saw.

WI: I think they were too bound by the classical strictures of science; I mean, Newton, in the very first book of the Principia tells us that time marches along second by second, irrespective of how we observe it. I think it took a third-class patent clerk who couldn't get a job at a university to say, "how do we know that?"

S: And just to give a couple examples, I remember you... like, Max Planck agreed with Einstein about the photoelectric effect, but couldn't come to believe that this was something intrinsic to light itself. He said this has to be just something quirky about the process of absorption and emission, but it's not telling us something fundamental about the nature of particles and light. But Einstein said no, this is the way the universe is built.

WI: Absolutely. It's a very good question, because there you have Max Planck, who has come up with a mathematical formula for how radiation works. And that formula's got a little quirk in it. He doesn't quite know why, but he needs in order to make the mathematical formulas work out, a little constant, a tiny constant, and it's called Planck's constant these days. And Einstein looks at it and says, "that means light's a particle as well as a wave". And you know, Max Planck for years later, is saying, "no, no, no; it doesn't really mean that". Einstein says, "yes, light is both wave and particle. It can be both and it depends on how you observe it". And that is the fundamental basis for quantum theory. And Einstein visualized it simply by looking at a mathematical equation, because he knew that a mathematical equation was just the good Lord's brush-stroke for painting something in reality. So he would visualize what was the reality behind an equation.

B: In fact, Einstein actually won a Nobel Prize not for relativity but for the photoelectric effect.

WI: Right. It was so many years—I mean, in 1905 he revolutionizes physics with quantum theory and relativity theory. And by 1919, which is when they billed him totally right by this observations of the eclipse, he still hasn't won a Nobel Prize. Part of it is antisemitism; part of it is they still can't make heads or tails of what he's talking about. And so finally they give it to him for a very specific part of the quantum theory paper, which he calls the Law of the Photoelectric Effect, because at least they can observe that and know it was true.

B: Right. It's funny; the ironic thing about the 1919 eclipse viewing by Arthur Eddington was the fact that when they looked back at that later, they realized that it was pretty much fudged and he couldn't have come up with the accuracy that he claimed that he did. But it didn't really matter, because it kind of gave Einstein the boost that he needed, in the...

WI: I think you're right, that Eddington was so eager to prove Einstein right, and when all the data comes back, what he does is he sends an expedition to South America, to Brazil, and he himself goes to this island right off the coast of Africa known as Principe, where for four minutes the total eclipse of the sun of May 1919 will be most visible. And when all the plates are brought back to London, Eddington stands in front of the Royal Society and says, "forgive us, Sir Isaac Newton, your universe has been overturned". And he's so eager to make the—because he knows Einstein—he knows in his gut that Einstein's theory is true. He really has kinda fudged the data. One of the funny things, though, is Einstein's back in Berlin; he couldn't travel to London; it was too soon after the war. But when he gets the confirmation, he shows it to a graduate student and she says, "well, you must be pleased" and he says, "well, no; I was confident". And she said, "well, what if the data had turned out differently?" He said, "I would have felt sorry for the good Lord because the theory is correct".


WI: So I think they were not sitting there worrying about the data... I think they knew if it came close enough he was going to be proven right.

S: Yeah, and you're kind of dancing around another aspect of Einstein's intellectual approach to everything that I think is reinforced quite a bit in your book, that Einstein believed that there was this intrinsic, underlying rationality or design, if you will, to the universe. It had to make sense, and if he figured out what made sense, that's what had to be true.

B: Don't use the word—

WI: You know, he often said, "when I try to figure out what's true and not, I ask myself, 'is this the way the Lord would have made the universe?'" He was saying it somewhat figuratively; he believed in sort of a God whose hand was there in the creation of the universe, not a personal God that you could pray to and who would sit up there in Heaven and sort of make things happen for you. What he really did believe was that the universe was created, as you say, in a very rational, certain way. And when quantum mechanics comes along and says, "no, it's irrational and uncertain and there's an uncertainty principle right at the heart of subatomic physics", he says, "no, I cannot believe that God would play dice with the universe; that He would let things happen by chance".

S: One thing that I didn't know before I read your book was when he was struggling for those years to make General relativity work, he said a sense—again, he could imagine what it should be, but he needed to get the math to work. He was taking two approaches, a physics approach and a math approach, and in the end, it was the mathematical approach, the more abstract or theoretical approach, that worked.

WI: Yes, but you have to remember that he begins with a physical insight. It's a simplest of all physical insights, which is that if you're sitting in an enclosed chamber on the surface of the Earth, in a gravitational field, you're going to feel your feet being pressed to the floor; you let something go, it falls to the floor at an accelerated rate. He says, imagine what you would feel if you're in the same chamber in deep outer space where there's no gravity, but it's accelerating upward, the chamber. You'd feel the same thing; your feet would be pressed to the floor; you take something out of your pocket, it would fall at an accelerated rate. That's the principle of equivalence, he calls it, that gravity and acceleration have equivalent effects. And that's the kernel of what General relativity is all about. And that's a physical insight. Then it took him another seven years to get the mathematics right, to get it exactly right. So you're correct; he does have to embark on a quest for the mathematics. But let's not forget that there was just a simple physical leap that starts that process.

S: The point that I was trying to emphasize is that—I totally agree with you—that Einstein sort of starts with these physical, abstract insights about how the universe should just make sense and be elegant and there should be this equivalence, and then, you know, figures out the math. But it was a very theoretical approach, and in fact he—correct me if I'm wrong—founded theoretical physics, basically. Not an empirical approach; he had almost—

WI: That's a very good point, and yes, I now see what you were saying. He doesn't do it by looking at data. I mean, you know, Special relativity says that the speed of light is always constant, no matter how you're moving. Everybody else was looking at Michaelson and Morley's experiments and all of the data. Einstein was doing it purely as a theoretical approach and using mathematics as his toolbox, not the laboratory and not experiments.

S: Right; he just wanted other people to sort of verify after the fact that he was right, by doing the messy empirical stuff.

WI: Absolutely, whether it's Special relativity or the photoelectric effect or General relativity, he ends every one of his papers by saying, "this is something I came up with in a theoretical fashion, and I hope the experimentalists will test it out and see if I'm right". And especially when we come to the General relativity, he gives that famous task, which is, "if you look at the light coming from the distant stars right next to the Sun, you'll see this 1.7 arcseconds of curve because of the gravitational field of the Sun curving space, and you have to wait until the total eclipse to do it". But it was that great, you know, sentence of his paper saying, "please test this out".

S: Right.

Einstein and God[edit]

E: Hey Walter, we spoke a little bit earlier in regards to Einstein's belief in a deity or in a god or supreme being of some sort, and of course, you know that last month, there came out this recently revealed letter of Einstein that went up for auction. You know, it said some very interesting things, which, having read your book, I believe it's pretty much in line with how Einstein felt, that there was no God answering people's prayers or anything like that; it was much more of a... just a natural sort of underlying belief that he had. What are your impressions of the letter that came out last month and how does that affect—

WI: Yeah, the letter re-affirmed that Einstein does not believe in a personal God, a God you can pray to and say, "make the Washington Redskins win this weekend" or "change the laws of physics for me". His idea of a God was sort of a Deist God, the same way that Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson would believe, that there's some force that is mysterious and is worthy of awe, that suffuses the universe. Somewhat like Spinoza, which called it a pantheistic God. In fact, at one point, when people are arguing Einstein had written a book called Science and Religion and said, "I believe in God and I hate when the atheists try to adopt me for their cause, but I don't believe in a personal God, who intervenes in our lives based on prayer". And so a rabbi sent him a telegram and said, "well do you or do you not really believe in God?" He answers by saying, "I believe in Spinoza's God; a God whose spirit is manifest in the harmonies of the universe". And I think that, you know, maybe if you're very religious and you believe in a personal God, or if you're a dedicated atheist and you believe there can't be anything else other than the laws of science, you may have trouble with that. But most of us, most regular people who wrestle with things in the middle of those two ideas can certainly understand how Einstein got to where he did.

S: You have no doubts about the authenticity of that letter; you think it's consistent?

WI: Oh no; that letter's definitely true. In fact, that letter wasn't a totally unknown letter. It was in private hands but it had been in the archive—I mean, people had read it; it had been in the papers before, so we knew he had said that. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters. So that letter is definitely true.

E: Walter, are there other letters out there that you might be aware of that are in these private collections that we don't—that the public doesn't have access to yet that might—

WI: No, I think the final batch of letters was the ones that were under seal into 2006, and those were the most private of letters that his illegitimate daughter, about his divorce with his wife, about the struggle to get General relativity, and maybe one or two other letters will pop up, but even this one that went up for auction in England had been known by scholars and it was in the papers—I mean, reprints of it were in the papers project. So if you go to Hebrew University or CalTech, where they curate the papers of Einstein, I think they probably know 99.9% of all the letters out there.

B: It's a shame that so many letters give so much insight into Einstein and other historical figures, and now with ubiquitous e-mail, it's kind of like a lost art form that's—

WI: It's really horrible. I wrote a book years ago with a friend called "The Wise Men", which is about American foreign policy in the '40s and '50s, and it had Averell Harriman and Bob Lovett in it, and they would write twice a day to each other from New York to Washington. And one day in 1959, you can almost date it almost, something amazing happens that stops the flow, which is the ability to direct dial a long-distance telephone call. And then suddenly, instead of the letters, we get little messages in their folders saying, "call me about Cambodia" or "next time we talk, we have to talk about Jack Kennedy", and you don't have the letters any more. It's such a loss.

S: Actually, e-mail may actually be a boon, because it's replacing phone calls, and at least—

WI: It's wonderful—

S: —potential for documentation.

WI: —and people keep e-mail. Yeah. And you know, e-mail never totally disappears, but I kind of worry that if we want to do something on the Bush administration, and what did Karl Rove really know about Valerie Plame, I don't know if we'll ever find the e-mails and... I kinda worry that e-mails are not like letters; they don't turn up 50 years from now in auction houses and we get to read them.

S: Yeah. This is a little bit off-topic, but I've been interested in this—should there be an effort for historians to archive e-mails for—

WI: There's two things we need to do: we need to archive e-mails and for that matter, any other documents we have, like phone conversations, text messages. Secondly, and this is more complex, we need to get some law so that there's a certain basic privacy, so that your e-mails cannot be subpoenaed or made public or used by the court unless it's absolutely necessary. Because the reason people now destroy their e-mails when they're in government is because they're afraid some special prosecutor will come along, or somebody will subpoena them, and it would seem to me that maybe under the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination and under the basic privacy concepts in the Constitution, we could say that unless it rises to a certain very high criminal level, a person's e-mails and diaries and private letters should be kept private.

Einstein and the Manhattan Project[edit]

S: Yeah. You mention that Einstein had to confront antisemitism, and certainly living in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, it's not a surprise, and you talk about the fact in your book that there were actually attacks on General relativity as both supporting relativism and also denigrating it as "Jewish science". How much traction did those kind of movements get?

WI: Huge traction. I mean, Einstein's theory is proven right, you know, right after World War I. But, the Germans, having lost World War I, began to blame their loss on the pacifists and on the internationalists and on the Jews. And Einstein's three for three. So, the antisemites in Germany, and that included a lot of scientists, start labeling relativity "Jewish science", and they say "it's not solid; it's not rooted in real experiment, the way Deutsche Physik, German Physics is". And that becomes a major—you know, even Adolf Hitler as a young writer in Munich, in writing in his newspaper Der Stürmer, attacks Einstein and Jewish physics for polluting the minds of German youth. Now by the way, this is good for the West, because in the end, when the Germans kicked out all the Jewish theoretical physicists and they all flee, Einstein and Teller and Wigner and Szilárd and... Bohr; they all end up having to flee the Nazis, and it means—and Fermi—and it means that it's the English and the Americans who are able to develop the atom bomb.

S: Yeah, I think it's one of the great ironies of history, that they sort of gave us the mechanism of their own destruction—

WI: Absolutely.

S: Because of their bigotry.

WI: Yeah, and had they not kicked out these Jewish theoretical physicists, it's quite possible that Enrico Fermi and Einstein, who wrote the letter to Roosevelt explaining how a chain reaction could lead to weapons and starts the Manhattan Project, those people would have still been in Germany.

S: Though Einstein was initially a little skeptical about that implication of his theories, right?

WI: Yeah, he never quite—up until 1939—didn't believe that you could split the atom and turn his equation "E equals mc squared" into reality; in other words, turn a tiny bit of mass into an enormous amount of energy. But then Szilárd and others explained to him some of the more recent experimental things that had been done in 1938, 1939 involving fission, involving uranium, involving a controlled—the possibility, as Szilárd came up with—of a controlled nuclear chain reaction. And Einstein said, "ah, yes; I get it", and he and Szilárd and Wigner and Teller write a letter to Roosevelt that Einstein signs saying this could lead to the construction of bombs.

S: Mm-hmm. One of the things I found interesting, too, was just the personal life of Einstein and how that mirrored his scientific career. As you said, he started off as a rebel, deliberately so a rebel; both intellectually and personally, and throughout the course of his life became much more comfortable and conservative. Do you think that his career also sort of reflected, maybe becoming more conservative as he got older?

WI: Yes, I do have a unified field theory about his life, which is that the rebelliousness that you see in his personal life you also see in his science, especially when he's young and he's... you know, the Bohemian life he's living and the way he's resisting authority, whether it's the authority of the Germans and becoming a pacifist in wartime World War I Germany, a real resistance of authority. But you see in the science he's rebellious and he resists authority in science. And then what happens—and by the way, it may happen to all of us when you turn 50 or so—you become a little bit more conservative in your personal life. He adopts a more bourgeois lifestyle for his second marriage. He settles down. And you see it happening in his science; he becomes much more conservative in his science. He defends the classical order of science against the advances of quantum mechanics. And he becomes a resistor of the more rebellious aspects of quantum mechanics. In fact, at one point, some of the young quantum mechanics schools of theorists say to him, "Einstein, you were always questioning authority; you always had a contempt for authority. Why are you now defending the old authority?" and he said, "maybe to punish me for my contempt of authority, the good Lord made me an authority myself".

B: Ha!

S: So you think that real scientific genius requires rebelliousness? You think all scientists should be rebels?

WI: I do think that you have to question the conventional wisdom. And he said, "a foolish thing in authority is the worst enemy of scientific advance". And so I think if you're not always questioning—and that's why it's good that he was a patent clerk instead of an acolyte in the academy, some junior professor in a university trying to please the senior professors. Instead he was a patent clerk and he had a boss who said, "every time you get a patent application, question every assumption. Challenge every premise and try to visualize how it would work". And it was that that made him such a genius.

S: You know, looking back at Einstein; he's like an icon of genius and he really was very humble in his early part of his career. No one really thought much of him.

WI: He couldn't get a job.

S: Had a hard time getting a job, which is part personality too. But actually, it conspired to put him in, as you say, the ideal situation. If he were a junior professor, he might have felt compelled to be a little bit more compliant.

WI: Oh, yeah. It would have been—it was a godsend for him to be there. He would have been horrible sucking up to a senior professor at a university. And so he was in the best of all places... you know, in the patent applications he was looking at, tended to be about synchronizing clocks, 'cause the Swiss had just gone on standard time zones. So they have these devices to synchronize clocks and they all have one thing in common, which is you have to send a signal between two distant clocks, and that signal travels at the speed of light, whether it's an electric signal or radio signal or light signal. And there's Einstein looking at these patent applications, sending signals at the speed of light and trying to figure out "well, what happens if you catch up with the light wave?"

S: Yeah, and we've, in fact, even on this podcast, talked before about the fact that Poincaré—am I pronouncing that right?

WI: Poincaré; yeah.

S: Poincaré actually had a lot of the pieces of...

WI: Yeah, Poincaré has it half right; you know, he keeps telling about relativity and time. But he doesn't believe that time is really relative; he just thinks our perceptions might change, but that there's an absolute time that underlies the universe, even though we perceive it differently, depending on how we're moving. And once again, Lorentz has a different theory, that maybe things contract as they move fast. And Einstein says, "no. It really means that there's no absolute time". It's not like there's some correct time and then you perceive it differently. It's "time is relative"; there's no absolute correct time in terms of the passage of time. It depends on your state of motion.

S: So, after this project, do you think that the popular sort of conception hype about Einstein is justified? You think he really deserves to be the icon of scientific genius that he is?

WI: Absolutely. I mean, when we picked him as the Person of the Century, I became convinced of that, but now even more so. If you want to put him up in the pantheon, he's there with Newton, Galileo, Aristotle, and maybe that's it. Maybe Faraday and Maxwell come close. But here's a guy who just totally made leaps of the imagination that re-conceived how we know the universe works.

S: Recently you did an interview for MSNBC and Buchanan asked you a question about intelligent design, and I thought that your answer was perhaps overly polite. He asked—

WI: (laughs)

S: He was goading you into saying that Einstein would have accepted intelligent design. So tell us what you really think about that.

WI: Yeah. Well, I must admit that when you're on MSNBC in the morning and it's 6:30 AM and you're—Pat Buchanan is giving you a premise, perhaps I'm not awake enough to push back well enough. I think that intelligent design nowadays is hijacked by people who really want to attack evolution. And Einstein of course believed that evolution was a true description of nature. So he would not have accepted intelligent design the way we use it today—or some people use it today—as an alternative to the theory of evolution. However, Einstein did believe that the universe did reflect an awesome reverential type of design that he said that we would never fully understand. It is a topic, he said, "far too vast for our limited imaginations and to me, that's a source of my religious faith". So I don't think he would have believed in intelligent design as a contrast to evolution, but if he didn't know what that phrase was being used for these days, he might have used that phrase for the concept of what the universe was all about.

S: Well, Walter, this has been a great interview. Can you tell us what your next project is? Are you working on another biography?

WI: I will tell you my next project. I happen to really love the idea of creativity. I happen to be from New Orleans, and I believe strongly that New Orleans is a magical place that needs to be rebuilt, and it needs to be rebuilt with the mix of races and ethnic classes that were there that made such a stew, that made New Orleans such a creative place. So in order to capture that, I'm doing a biography of Louis Armstrong, 'cause I used to play jazz when I was a kid.

E: Wow.

S: That sounds really great. Well, Einstein: His Life and Universe, I have to say, it really is a completely fascinating read. I highly recommend it, and Walter, thanks again for giving us your time.

WI: And thank you so much; great questions and I really enjoyed being with you.

S: Good to have you.

B: Thank you.

E: Thank you, Walter.

S: Take care.

Science or Fiction (1:06:24)[edit]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake, and I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to tell me which one is the fake.

R: That's us.

S: That's you guys.

E: Woo-hoo.

B: Cool.

S: All right. You ready?

R: Ready.

E: Si.

S: Item #1: A new study shows that we pick our friends based largely on similarity of physical appearance. Item #2: Playing golf prolongs life expectancy by an average of 5 years. And item #3: New research shows that when it comes to collective traumatic events, like terrorists attacks, it is psychologically healthy to keep feelings inside rather than discussing them with others.

B: Holy crap.

S: (indistinct) 'cause you haven't heard of any of these?

B: None of them, you putz. Where'd you dig these up? I found a few that I thought for sure you would ask.

S: Bob, why don't you go first, since you're complaining so much?

B: Oh, yeah.

E: (laughs)

B: Wait. I need a half hour to think about these.

R: Oh, God.

E: For each one?

S: Bob, use the Rebecca method: just go with your gut and just—

B: I don't have a coin on me. All right. "New study shows"—

R: Can't do a coin flip, Bob; there are three items.

E: Bob,

B: Three-sided die! (clattering)

S: Yeah, there you go.

R: Nerd. I knew you were going to say that.

B: Right? Yeah. "New study shows that we pick our friends based largely on similarity of physical appearance". I'm not going to buy that one. I don't know why; I'm just not going to buy it. Playing golf prolongs life expectancy; an average of five years?

E: Or two strokes.

B: See, that's—all right, I'm going to have to say that that's just too crazy not to be true, Steve. Unless you want me to believe that. So I'm not going to pick two, then, because that's just so wacky that I can't pick it. All right, three. "Collective traumatic events". So after 9/11, it's healthy to keep the feelings inside rather than discussing them with others. Yeah, keep it all inside; that's good for you; don't discuss it. All right; I'm going to go with picking your friends. No, wait.

R: Ugh.

B: (laughing) I'm sorry!

R: You nearly set a record for the fastest Science or Fiction choice ever. For you.

E: He was about to set another record.

B: I'm gonna say—all right, I'm gonna go with "similarity of physical appearance" is fiction.

S: OK. Evan? Quick, before Bob changes his mind.

E: We pick our friends based largely on similarity of physical appearance, such as noses. So the whole, you know, "pick your friends' noses"... joke comes into play. OK, so, playing golf prolongs life expectancy by an average of 5 years. Yeah, and I think I know why. So I think that is true. And then, the research about terrorist attacks keeping the... feeling inside rather than discussing with—boy, that is so counter-intuitive. "Keep your feelings inside rather than discussing them with others"? I will say that that counter-intuitive one is the fiction. I'll go with my gut.

S: OK. All right. Rebecca?

R: See, now, I don't think it's counter-intuitive—well, maybe it would still be counter-intuitive, but... I have read studies that show that—or seem to show at least that there's really no such thing as like, getting out your anger; that when you get out your anger, so to speak, you end up angrier than before. So I think that that might be related to that. So I'm going to say that that's science. I think playing golf does prolong your life, and I think picking our friends based largely on similar appearance is BS.

S: OK. All right. So you all agree that playing golf prolongs life expectancy—

B: Maybe if you walk all between holes.

S: —by an average of five years.

E: Yeah, that's what I was thinking. You're walking.

B: But still, five years is a lot.

S: Five years is a lot.

E: But golf is five miles; it's about a five-mile walk on a golf course.

R: Yeah, but if it's like, if there's a correlation issue here, it could be like, rich people play golf; rich people live longer.

E: But rich people drive the carts.

B: Rich people get better health care.

S: So you guys would all be surprised if this one turned out to be the fiction. Is that what you're saying?

E/R: Yes.

S: Well, it's not. It's science.

R: Ha-ha.

S: This one's true. And yeah, this was a... a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, based upon 300,000 Swedish golfers—

R: What?

S: —show that golf has beneficial health effects. The death rate amongst golfers is 40 percent lower than the rest of the population, which translates to an increased life expectancy of five years.

B: Forty!

S: Which I thought sounded like a lot. That's why I included it. And you're right; there's a lot of things that could be correlating here. I think the physical activity is probably real, especially when you consider that a lot of people play golf in their older years. It's kind of the sport that you can keep up with even into your 70s and beyond. And exercise, especially in the geriatric or elderly population, makes a huge difference on quality of life and healthfulness. So I think that that is a very plausible factor: keeping active in your older age, golf, living longer; that's very plausible. But you're right; it could also be due to other factors, such as socio-economic status, although they tried to control for all those variables. You know.

R: They always do.

S: They always do. Otherwise, it's kind of worthless if you don't, but. And this was regardless of sex, age and social group. This was in all sex, age and social groups. Interesting.

B: Wow. I gotta take up golf.

S: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Or something. Let's go on to number three: "New research shows that when it comes to collective traumatic events, like terrorists attacks, it is psychologically healthy to keep feelings inside rather than discussing them with others." And Evan, you thought that this was the fiction; Bob and Rebecca thought that this one was science. And this one is... science.

B: Woo-hoo!

S: And some people do think this is counter-intuitive. This is certainly counter to some traditional thinkings about counseling and that you should get people to talk about their feelings and the traumatic experience, and in fact, after 9/11, counselors and social workers and whatever descended upon New York City to get people to talk about their traumatic experiences, and this isn't the first report to cast doubt upon that approach. This one, interestingly—the new sort of angle here was looking specifically at shared or public traumatic events. And they thought that was an important component of it for some reason. And they specifically looked at 9/11, in fact. And it turns out that people who sort of kept their feelings to themselves did better than people who were sort of forced to express their feelings. This partly may be due to the fact that the approach that was taken, the counseling approach, was to really force people to re-live the events. And that probably was not a good idea. 'Cause what you ended up doing was forcing—just reinforcing the traumatic experience. "Let's re-live this trauma in your mind over and over, again". It was not a good approach.

B: Let's really consolidate those long-term memories.

S: (chuckling) Yeah, right. However, this was research that was conducted at the University of Buffalo by psychologist Mark Seery. He did distinguish it from personal traumatic experiences. So if there's a trauma that is personal, it's like you and maybe your family, then discussing it amongst the other people who have also had the same personal trauma is different. That may actually be a good thing. So this doesn't apply to that. This is more of like the public terrorist attack-type of thing. All of which means that "a new study shows that we pick our friends based largely on similarity of physical appearance" is complete and total hokum and fiction.

E: That's right. Yeah.

S: It is. But this is, as usual, based on a real study. So what do you think was the dominant factor in determining our friendships?

E: Height.

B: Um.

S: (chuckles)

R: Sense of humor.

E: Compatible body odors.

B: That's interesting. Hair color?

R: Astrology sign!

S: An astrological sign's a very good guess, but in a word, it was propinquity. Or proximity.

B: Nearness. Ah!

R: Yeah, I don't know what that word means.

S: Proximity.

B: You do too.

S: So it's just being close to other people. We just form attachments and friendships with the people we just happen to be next to.

B: "Propinquity".

S: And there's been data supporting this for a while, like if you look at—

R: Then why do I hate all my co-workers?

S: (laughs) But actually, it turns out that people tend to make friends with people in their same department or their next-door neighboors; I mean, you're just much more likely to form friendships. What they did—very interesting study—

R: Whoa, wait. I'd just like to clarify that I love all the co-workers who are listening right now.

S: OK. OK. OK.

R: Go on.

S: What they did was they had a fake meeting, with freshmen in a college. The purpose of the meeting was just to set up this experiment, but they didn't let on to that. What they did was they assigned the students completely at random to an assigned seat. Now, these students went on with their normal college life; whoever they were going to be dormitoried with and whatever, have classrooms with. So this was a one-time random meeting. Just a one-off meeting. But it was at the very beginning of their college experience. Then four years later, they correlated how friendly people reported they were with other people to how close they sat to them in that meeting. In that session. If you sat right next to somebody, you were much more likely to be friends with them than somebody who was sat far away. You were more friendly with people in your row than people in other rows.

R: If Jay were here he would make a joke about "that's how I choose sexual partners".

S: Yes. Something like that.

E: We miss you, Jay.

R: Wanted to throw that out there.

Quote of the Week (1:16:04)[edit]

S: Well, because Jay is not here with us today, Evan, you're going to fill in for him for the quote, right?

E: OK. So here's tonight's quote:

A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restored given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that every literature major should take a watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.

And that was written by Walter Isaacson in the opening of his book, Einstein.

S: Right.

B: Very nice.

S: Then if you have a real short-term memory, that's the guy we just interviewed.

E: (chuckles) Hopefully you don't.

R: (imitating Jay) Walter Isaacson!


S: Nice try, Rebecca.

E: I wasn't gonna go there.

R: No?

S: A very nice quote. Not as pithy as our usual quote, but very appropriate. Very appropriate. Now, speaking of the quote, there's this enduring controversy that no one anticipated about whether or not the author should be read before or after the quote. This was brought up by a listener; we decided to have a vote on the forum, which was in favor of having the quote af—the author said after the quote, and since then, we've had this storm of e-mail saying that we should let Jay decide or that we really need to have the author said beforehand. Very unhappy with the outcome of the vote. So, this is what we're gonna do. For the next two weeks, we're going to keep the poll going on the forums. So if you really care, then go to the forum, look under "messages from the panel to the listeners", and near the top should be the survey on the quote. And it's either you want the author said beforehand, after, or "I don't care", and if you vote "I don't care", that means you want Jay to be able to decide. You think that Jay should decide.

R: Just so you know, "after" is currently winning. 51 votes.

S: "After" is currently winning. So if you want it before, or if you want Jay to be able to decide, then you better vote.

R: This is very important.

S: Right.

R: Very important.

S: (chuckles) So. What's important is that we stop getting these e-mails.


S: Well, in any case, thanks to all of you for joining me again.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Oh, thank you. Great show.

B: Surely.

S: It was a good show; I enjoyed it. And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.


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