SGU Episode 367

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SGU Episode 367
28th July 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 366                      SGU 368

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Homeopaths do not have a physical brain, but merely 'skull water' with the memory of brains.

Robin Ince

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, July 25th 2012, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Hi-ho, everyone!

J: Hello!

S: Hi-ho.

B: Hi-ho?

E: That's what Kermit the Frog used to say, remember?

S: And the dwarves, right?

E: Well, they used to sing that more than say it, but you're right. Frogs and dwarves.

S: (laughs) Frogs and dwarves.

B: Living together. Total chaos.

E: Sounds like a d20 game. All right.


This Day in Skepticism (0:44)[edit]

  • July 28, 1996: The remains of Kennewick Man was discovered

S: All right, Rebecca, what's important about today?

J: Yeah.

R: I would love to tell you what's important about today what you doing today is that this is the anniversar—July 28th—the anniversary the discovery of Kennewick Man. July 28, 1996, the remains of Kennewick Man were found in Washington State and people probably best know Kennewick Man due to the controversy surrounding the ownership of the bones, because the local Native American tribe, the Umatilla, requested custody of the remains and they wanted to bury them according to their tribal traditions. And scientists sued the US in order to have the ability to perform tests on the bones first and they won because the judge found that the Umatilla did not have a cultural tradition that connected in any way with the bones, which were suspected to be quite old. And sure enough, when tests were performed, they were found to be probably about nine thousand years old. And because of Kennewick Man, researchers figured out a good deal about... it's a complex issue, because we don't know much about the spread of early American people. We know a lot, but there's a lot of puzzle pieces to put together. Kennewick Man added a new puzzle piece that was quite interesting for a lot of researchers to figure out. And there's been a lot of debate about what... where Kennewick Man came from and who Kennewick Man's possible descendents were and all of that good stuff. So that's the shortest I can sum all that up for you.

S: But there's some other details I think are worth mentioning. So yeah, it's over 8,000 years old; could be as much as 9,000. What was immediately interesting about that was that the skull does not have a typical Native American features; it looks Caucasian, although it also has some other features that don't quite fit into anything. So this implies that—something very different about the usual story that that has been unfolding about the population of the Americas. As you said, this is a new puzzle piece, which really calls into question a lot of what we thought we knew about who came over when. And it's partly for that reason that no modern Native American tribe—the burden of proof is upon them to establish that this is an ancestor. They can't establish a connection because it's not even Native American, in terms of its morphology. The DNA apparently has been equivocal. So, another interesting wrinkle to the ownership controversy: in 2005, John McCain introduced an amendment to NAGPRA, which is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the law that basically says that Native Americans can say, "hey those bones are our ancestors; you have to give them to us so that we can handle them according to our traditions". The amendment would have said—change the definition of Native American from, "is indigenous to the United States" to, "is or was indigenous to the United States". But that bill was never passed. If that change had gone through, then Kennewick Man would be considered Native American because he was found in the United States; that's all it would take.

R: But then that would raise a whole new batch of issues because at that point, you still have to figure out which tribe gets to bury Kennewick Man. And there's a very good chance that you won't be able to find the tribe, and if you do, there's a very good chance that white people have already wiped them out.

S: Yeah, that was kind of the point of that amendment, was that so many of the descendants have been wiped out that it's not really fair to require them to establish a continuous connection, so they wanted to loosen the criteria. But I think it's unfortunate, because from a scientific point of view, we want to study the remains of humans that we find in North America to piece this puzzle together and if we don't get the opportunity to do that, we're going to lose a lot of information. Honestly, my opinion is that... especially when you're going back thousands of years, these bones belong to humanity. The are part of our shared history, you know what I mean? The history of our species and... so I think that we have the right to have scientists study this to figure out... to piece that history together. Unfortunately, there's a lot of religio—Native American religion and culture tied up with this; they have certain oral traditions, and if they believe that what the scientists are investigating are going against their oral traditions, then they don't like that. That becomes the basis of their opposition.

R: Right, and that was the argument on behalf of the Umatilla was that their oral history goes back long enough to encompass these remains and the government denying that is the government rejecting their religious beliefs. Right now, those remains are held at the Burke Museum at UDub and they're not on display, because it would be insulting to the...

E: Potentially, yeah.

R: The Native Americans.

S: It's an interesting controversy and one we've sort of been following over the years, and it's kind of in limbo now, actually... still owned by the federal government, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers and being held by this museum as a neutral party but not being studied; not being displayed. So it really is still unresolved.

R: And I forgot to mention when I mentioned the discovery of the remains is that what makes these remains particularly interesting is how complete they were. At first blush, it seemed like they were only maybe a 100, 200 years old. It wasn't until they did radiocarbon dating that they were able to fix the date at around 9300 years. So like, there were only... there's like one, maybe two, major bones that were missing and there was even like a full set of teeth inside the skull, so there's a tremendous amount that they could learn from these remains.

E: We don't have much that's still around from 9200 years ago—

R: Especially in America.

News Items[edit]

Skeptical Conferences (7:14)[edit]

  • TAM
  • DragonCon
  • CSICon

S: Well, let's move on to our news items. We are back from The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012.

B: 20-12.

S: 20-12. 2012.

R: He'll never stop. He'll never stop.

S: No; I will. In 2013.

E: (laughs)

R: Zing.

S: Of course, we were all there except for Rebecca. Rebecca did not go to TAM this year because of issues that she had with DJ Grothe.

R: It revolves around a discussion had online about harassment policies, really. And many women, particularly, and a lot of men, encouraging skeptic conferences to enact anti-harassment policies to help women feel more comfortable at conferences.

S: We definitely missed having you there. Of course, the rest of us were there to attend the dinner and do all the things we agreed to do. And it still was a great event; TAM is very successful, I thought. Hopefully we can move past this kerfuffle... if you want to learn more about this, it's been written about to death online and we're still going to be discussing this issue; I didn't want to show itself to get dragged down into talk endlessly about this, but there is definitely a lot. The discussion is very active online still and we hope to move this forward in a constructive way. So that's all I'm going to say about it further. We also have two conventions coming up: we have Dragon*Con

R: That's Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, for those of you who don't know.

S: Yep, August 31st to Sept 3rd; the entire SGU will be there. We will be doing a live show on Saturday night. And I'm told we have to Crystal Ballroom this year, which is a little bit bigger than the rooms we had last year, which always flows out the door, so hopefully we will have enough room for everybody. And we will have tables there to meet our listeners and sell some swag and I think we're also going to be recording a private show like we did last year 'cause that was so popular; people really liked that.

E: It was awesome.

R: That was a lot of fun.

S: It was a lot of fun.

J: George and Brian Brushwood were with us.

E: We'll see who attends this year. Hmm.

S: Hmm. We'll see. Mystery guest. And the SGU will be attending in its entirety for the first time CSICon in Nashville from October 25th to October 28th.

R: Steve and I were there last year and it was awesome.

B: Wait! I didn't know it was so close to Halloween. I'm not going.

S: (laughs)

E: Why? There's going to be a Halloween party.

S: There will be a Halloween party.

B: Are you sure?

R: Yes, I'm hosting it.

E: Yes! They're already talking about the costumes. See?

B: Maybe I'll go now.

E: Bob, the invite's in your email.

S: Rebecca hosted it last year; it was a lot of fun. So we will be doing a live show from CSICon on Thursday, October 25th at 7 to 9 p.m.; we're basically opening the conference. George Hrab will be there. In the schedule, it just says, "entertainment with George Hrab after our show"; I don't know what entertainment he's planning. And then we're also doing a Skeptics' Guide dinner on Saturday night, where we will... you can have dinner with the entire cast of the SGU and other well-known skeptics. And we'll be doing some entertainment during the dinner as well; we're still working out the details, but definitely something fun will be going on.

R: And you can get tickets to all that at

S: So there is a proliferation of skeptical conferences. In a good way, you know; I think we're spreading out around the country and around the calendar reasonably well, so there's a lot more choices.

R: Yeah. And speaking of... unfortunately, this isn't a full SGU event, but I just want to throw it out there because it's happening soon. August 3rd through 5th I'm going to be in Montreal for the Sex & Secularism conference, and you can learn more about that at

J: For the show that we're doing at Dragon*Con, let's tell people how they can sign up to have that private show with us.

R: Yeah, you can go to and you'll see an item listed front and center that says "SGU private recording". Click on that and you can place your order. It's $50 a ticket and there's a limit of thirty people.

S: And it'll be Sunday night at 10 o'clock. Yeah, we've done that two times so far; both times it was a lot of fun, both for us and all the people that came. And so I think we're going to make this a regular thing.

R: Yeah.

Sally Ride (11:26)[edit]

S: All right; let's move on to some other news items. Unfortunately, we do have a sad news item this week: Sally Ride passed away a few days ago.

R: I was crushed. I love her.

B: Yeah. Stinks.

S: So Sally Ride was the first woman American in space. She rode aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. That made her a household name, at least in the US. She actually was a strong advocate of science education; she used her fame to promote science. She had a website—there is a website: They produce educational materials like key concepts in science, earth sciences, life sciences, physical sciences. It's really good. It's good outreach; it's like trying to supplement the very poor public school science education that we get in this country, in my opinion.

R: They also run science camps, including girl-only science camps for girls in fourth grade and up.

S: Yeah; so she was awesome.

E: I was 13 years old when that happened; it was huge, huge news and I remember thinking to myself then, "well, why is she the first? Why we only having women in space this point?" It seemed like it was such a long time coming; that we were kind of late to the game, in a sense. Even the Russians sent a woman up into space 20 years prior.

S: Yeah, 1963. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.

B: Really?

S: Yeah.

B: Whoa.

S: Orbited the Earth 48 times in 1963. Yeah, (laughs) we were late to that party. I remember all the headlines were, "Ride, Sally, Ride", you know, when she went up into space.

R: Yeah, I was a bit lucky growing up, because she's such a household name by the time I was cognizant of anything that... it never really occurred to me as a kid that, like, "well, of course women can go to space and of course women can be cool scientists". I really looked up to her, you know, but it didn't occur to me at the time that she was—

B: Especially when she was in space.

R: —so singular and that she crossed so many boundaries; that she sort of blazed that frontier for women.

S: Yeah. She was a physicist and she joined the faculty at the University of California San Diego.

R: A theoretical astrophysicist, even.

S: Yeah!

B: Holy crap.

R: That's hard core. That's hard core.

B: My main memory is her curly hair in zero-g.

S: Yeah. (laughs)

J: Absolutely!

S: That was iconic. Absolutely.

J: When I was was researching her, I was looking up pictures everything I saw the pictures from her on the shuttle with her hair just, like, floating around and everything and that was burned into my head.

R: And you know, the interesting thing that came out after her death was that not only was she the first woman—American woman in space, but she is also the first known gay person in space. She's very tight-lipped about her private life tonight; I don't think the people he knew that she was dying of pancreatic cancer and even fewer people knew that she had a long-time lesbian partner. 27 years they were together and her partner is also her business partner at Sally Ride Science and she just didn't see the point in making a big deal out of it but there a lot of people now who are looking up to her as a gay icon too. The first lesbian in space that we know of.

S: That we know of?

E: Well, there was the Russian. (laughs)

R: We didn't know she was a lesbian until now, so.. who knows?

E: Yeah. Never knew.

J: I like the fact that I didn't know about it; I just heard it right now and I really just don't care. You know what I mean? Like, it has no impact on what I think of her at all, like—

R: Well, for me, it makes me even prouder of her because... I mean, she overcame so much.

S: Yeah; meanwhile at the same time, the Boy Scouts of America is embroiled in a bit of a controversy over discriminating against homosexuals.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: This is really going against them. We're definitely living through a culture change; you know? A generational culture change, where the younger generation basically doesn't care about sexual orientation, and you know, just over time it's... these attitudes are shifting. The Boy Scouts now are getting caught in the middle of it. One thing that interested me about that is they discriminate against atheists and apparently that's OK. But now they're getting slack for discriminating against homosexuals, so...

R: I should mention the Girl Scouts in multiple countries—I'm not sure if it's happened in the US yet, but the Girl Scouts in their pledge, they mention God and in several countries now they've publicly dropped that in order to be more egalitarian, more appealing to a diversity of girls. And the Girl Scouts are awesome when it comes to science education and encouraging girls to explore the natural world, so.

S: And they make good cookies.

R: They make delicious cookies; what's not to love about the Girl Scouts? Don't write in and tell me what's not to love about the Girl Scouts. I don't wanna know.

E: You know how many pounds I've gained over the years eating those cookies? Oh, gosh... so deadly.

R: That's a fair complaint.

J: I have a nitpick with the Girl Scouts, OK? We've been noticing—

E: They rejected you, Jay?

J: Stop. I got over that years ago. We've noticed that your cookie sizes have been shrinking slowly and steadily throughout the years.

E: Oh! Fair point, Jay.

R: Jay's on to you, Girl Scouts.

J: Seriously; make them bigger! What are you doing? Like, why? I'll pay more; just make 'em bigger.

E: Jay, have you read the label on those cookies?

R: I'll pay more bigger.

S: (laughs) We want bigger cookies.

J: Did you guys hear about the Boy Scout who had his—who was an Eagle Scout actually—he turned in—he turned in his papers or what is it? Is it a badge that they give you?

S: His badge, yeah.

J: The guy wrote the board and said, "I can't in good conscience maintain my relationship with the Boy Scouts" and he quit.

R: Good for him.

S: Not the only one; I think it's starting a trend. They're getting a lot of badges back in protest over their stance on homosexuality.

E: Those guys don't need no stinkin' badges.

Mood Photography (17:36)[edit]

S: All right; Well, Jay, tell us about The latest in aura photography.

J: Have you guys ever hear of an aura or a person's aura?

S: Oh, yeah.

R: I have.

E: Indeed.

J: And what color are yours; what do you think?

B: Well, mine's red.

R: Pretty sure I'm purple.

E: Orange here.

S: I've always imagined my aura as like a pale ecru.

R: Oh, Steve.

S: (laughs)

R: Steve, Steve, Steve.

J: Actually, your auras are all black; you don't have any and I explain to you—

S: No, they're invisible. They're transparent.

J: Well, as many of you know, there are people that believe that people give off auras that some people claim that they can actually see. And the fact is that humans radiate electromagnetic energy, but this is mostly infrared, and it's a function of our body generating or giving off heat. If we have an aura, it's just heat. Our bodies don't radiate energy in the form of radiation or light from our feelings or thoughts, so you think about whatever you want and feel whatever you want; there's just no way that anyone is going to be able to, or can with today's technology, see or read or peer into what's actually going on in your mind and in your heart, if you were going to use that

S: In short, there's no such thing as an aura.

J: Right. So yeah, we use—

S: Made-up nonsense.

J: —something called science to determine that an aura doesn't exist. So if you we simply just take a quick look at the electromagnetic spectrum...

B: I'm looking.

J: Where are the auras—where are the auras on that spectrum, you might ask. And of course, some answers you might get are, "well, it's metaphysical... an aura is being picked up by somebody else and it doesn't really criss-cross with the physical world, and some people say it does or whatever; it's just the typical huge spectrum of answers that you get what you ask these types of questions. Now Steve, you mentioned in your blog today about people who are either self-deluded or have visual or sensory disorders, and that's an explanation for why they might see an aura.

S: Well, I mean, I think the standard explanation is that the people believe that they're seeing auras are just self-deluded. Just suggestibility. But over the years there's been one or another various speculations about "well, maybe they have synesthesia", which we discussed actually a paper that pretty convincingly argued that that doesn't fit well with the phenomenon. Or maybe there's something else; there's some other visual disturbance they have, which is... 'cause it's not that big a deal to have this visual illusion of a halo of light. There are drugs that can do that; if you take digitalis, for example; too high a dose can make you see auras around any bright light source. But that's all very speculative and I don't think it's a major contributor to the phenomenon of people believing in auras; I think it's mainly just New-Age belief and suggestibility.

J: People who believe in auras mostly were influenced by the findings of a man named Semyon Kirlian. He was a Russian inventor who in '39 accidentally discovered that if an object is on a photographic plate, if it's connected to voltage, an image is produced of that voltage stimulating a gas that emitted from objects, especially if there's moisture involved. I know you guys are dying to know the why are we talking about this today.

R: Dying.

J: There's a new form of aura photography out there and that's called the Guy Coggins Aura Camera 6000. Bob, can you guess who invented this thing?

B: Is it Guy Coggins?

J: Yeah. The Guy Coggins Aura Camera 6000!


J: He actually calls it the Aura Camera 6000!

E: Rather cartoonish, wouldn't you say?

J: Did the Simpsons like write this guy and his camera? The aura photos that he takes with his camera have a 10-second exposure and while the picture's being taken the subject places his hands on these two boxes that capture "biofeedback". This device picks up electromagnetic fields that are measured at the Ayurvedic Meridians, or otherwise known as complete bullshit points.


J: These are—I was reading about that and it's really funny when you read the gobbledygook that comes with explanations for things like this; it's like, "the rivers of energy that flow through your being," you know, it's that type of crap you'll read when you read about the Ayurvedic Meridians. So the camera translates this data that came from the person placing their hands on these boxes into one or more colors. It's explained on the website: "Through a patented operation, these parameters are projected as a radiant, colorful aura field around the body onto the Polaroid film along with the image of the person."[1] So these different traits are assigned to each color; some of you know about this, right? You have orange is creative and artistic; green is for strength—

E: That's me.

J: —and healing and teaching and red is force of will; blue-violet is "mystical and unifying". It's more than enough—

E: There you go, Rebecca.

J: It's more than enough to make anybody happy when you read your own aura because everything is good. They don't say, "wow, this particular color means you're an A-hole."

S: You're a jerk.

R: You're gonna die.

S: What color is skeptical, Jay?

J: Oh, that's a good question.

S: What color aura do you have if you don't believe in auras?

J: I think if I were to assign a color to skepticism it would be silver.

S: OK. So, the key here is that this is not taking a picture of anything. This is just placing an artificial color on to the photographic film based on some BS interpretation of... whatever; the skin conductivity; the bio feedback parameters. It's not actually a picture of anything. Right? It's just fake.

E: It's nothing.

J: His imaging is complete BS. Yeah. He even states—at some point I was reading that he said he knows that it's not really take me a picture of an aura. Even says it.

S: Yeah, it's almost like simulating what an aura would look like and it's just guessing at what color it's supposed to be based upon some made-up algorithm. The other thing is, it's reading something very transient; the skin conductivity, temperature, whatever; all that stuff. This is not like it's a fixed property; it's gonna change with your body temperature and other physiological parameters. This is this is about as scientific as a mood ring.

B: Send me a picture of yourself and I'll Photoshop an aura around you and it'll be the same thing.

Computer Modeling Life (24:06)[edit]

S: So Bob, tell us about the first computer model of a living organism.

B: Yeah; this is pretty cool. We are one significant step closer to turning biology into a digital science. Stanford researchers and the J. Craig Venter Institute have, for the first time, used software to simulate an entire organism. Now the research team used 128 computers to model the complete life cycle of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium. can anyone guess why they used this specific type of bacteria?

J: Absolutely no idea.

R: Because it's pretty.

B: Well, because... no, time's up. Because it has the smallest genome of any independent organism. It has only 525 genes, which is really, really tiny. E.coli, for example, which is probably one of the standard research organisms, is hugely complex in comparison; it has 4,288 genes, so this guy's really, really tiny. Now, Mycoplasma genitalium may sound familiar; it was the organism used by Venter's institute in 2009 to synthesize an artificial chromosome. You may remember that. He, of course, used it because of that very reason; because it was really tiny and relatively easy to do. This is a parasitic bacterium that is usually unwanted, since it shows up in human respiratory and urogenital tracts as a transmitter of sexually transmitted disease, so you don't really want one of these guys on you, but... So why would we even want to convert this bacterium into software? Well, there's actually lots of reasons, but primarily it's all about bringing a mountain of data under one roof. For years now one of the biggest problems in researching the tiniest units of life has not been getting enough data; actually, using a high-throughput studies that we have now, you can create libraries of information really, really fast. The problem now is trying to understand all this information kind of as a gestalt; to try to get a handle on all this mountain of information. Technological limitations in the past have forced us into this sort of reductionist approach, which I'm sure you're all familiar with. To understand a gene, you knock it out and see what changes. And this has been incredibly successful and very illuminating, but it does almost nothing to get us the big picture of what's going on. Stanford bioengineering team lead Professor Markus Covert said many of the issues we're interested in aren't single-gene problems. They're the complex result of hundreds or thousands of genes interacting." Now to pull this off, the team used their own experiments and the data from more than 900 scientific papers about this organism. These papers examined in detail things like all the biological molecular interactions known to take place inside the cell from birth to death. The key advance that they made, I would say, was to chunk up this data and then make all this data work together. And to do this, they identified 28 different modules or categories of molecules and their interactions within the cell. This includes things like DNA and RNA and molecules like metabolytes that are generated within the cells during metabolism and these modules then communicated with each other during each time step of the program when it was run. So this turned the separate discrete elements into a single unified digital organism. A key fact that I think is really critical and really fascinating is that they ran some experiments that validated this computer model. They showed that it was able to reproduce independent lab data that examined many different cell functions across many different scales. If you could create a model that then matches what you're seeing in reality, I think you're definitely, at the very least, you're on to something pretty... that's pretty accurate.

E: So, if you had to extrapolate this to a person, that's a... you know, that's a lot of data. (laughs) That's a tremendous amount.

B: Oh my God. Oh yeah.

E: Are we talking yottabytes? What are we talking here?

B: Let's not get silly. So my usual question at this point is, "well, want may the future hold for this kind of technology?" And I think that we could see things like a fully designed bacteria or yeast that could mass produce things like pharmaceuticals. I think that's kind of a no-brainer possibility for this. We could also see labs that could do thousands at a time; much faster than we can even imagine doing right now. Ultimately, though, this could give us the ability to use CAD, or computer-aided design in medicine and bioengineering; something that's never really been done before.

Artificial Jellyfish (28:30)[edit]

S: Rebecca, you're going to tell us about a different kind of artificial organism that scientists have recently created.

R: Yeah. I'm going to top you, Bob. OK. No, not really.

B: (laughs) Go for it.

E: Yeah, that... take two.

R: Yeah. this is interesting. Kevin Kit Parker is a professor of bioengineering and physics at Harvard. He was interested in growing a heart. how does one grow heart? And he was inspired by the way that jellyfish pump a muscle in order to move through the water. So he decided to try to create an artificial jellyfish using heart cells, particularly heart cells from a rat. So along with researchers at both Harvard and CalTech, he spent years studying how jellyfish move before they were able to create jellyfish-like silicone body onto which they printed this pattern of proteins that mimicked the musculature of jellyfish. Next, they grew the heart muscle cells over the body and then they dropped it into a container of electrically conducting fluid and then shocked it, which forced the cells to contract and moved the synthetic jellyfish around in the water. So, basically, they bioengineered a jellyfish. I was a little disappointed when I found out that it was being hailed as synthetic life and, you know, I was a bit disappointed that it can't actually reproduce; it can't move on its own though apparently the cells did contract slightly before the electricity was applied, which is cool. But what makes this amazing to me is that this team isn't setting out to perfectly recreate a jellyfish. Instead, they've identified the primary function of a jellyfish and they thought about a new way to create it. They're jellyfish doesn't look exactly like a jellyfish; it is designed to move to the water though in the way a jellyfish does, but better, basically. 'Cause evolution is this messy process and it doesn't always result in the perfect tool for the job. Applied to the idea of creating replacement hearts for people, maybe we don't necessarily need to recreate the human heart as it currently exists; we can instead build a new, more streamlined organ that's better suited for the job. And it seems to be this teams goal. Lead author Janna Nawroth said that tissue engineers currently try to copy a tissue organ and I quote, "based on what they think is important or what they see as the major components without necessarily understanding if those components are relevant to the desired function or without analyzing first how different materials could be used". So as for the jellyfish, they are now working on a simple brain for it so that it can respond to its environment by moving toward light or seeking out food or energy. However, I could find no plans currently in place to add any stinging capabilities.

S: I have to make a pedantic point here before we get emailed in about it; that the term "jellyfish" is a little out of favor because jellyfish are not fish. Yeah; I don't think it's anything official, but a lot of aquariums, etc. have been using the term "jelly" or "sea jelly" rather than "jellyfish" but "jellyfish" is still, I think, an acceptable.

R: Yeah, I don't think anybody really thinks of jellyfish as fish; I mean, they're quite obviously different organisms.

S: Right, right. And it kind of rolls off the tongue a little bit better. Jellyfish. I agree.

B: Jellies. Well, like starfish; they're not really called "starfish" anymore; it's "sea stars".

R: Really?

B: Similar idea.

J: I think saying anything's a fish that lives in the water is, in general, somewhat accurate, right? But there's mammals that live in the water, too; whatever.

R: Well, does that mean thought that we're going to have to change the names of catfish? 'Cause they're not really cats.

S: But they are fish. What about Aquaman? Is Aquaman a fish?

R: Well, no; it's not even his name. If he was a fish, he'd be called Aquafish.

B: What about Mermaid Man? Mermaid Man!

S: (laughs) Mermaid Man.

R: What is Mermaid Man?

S: And Barnacle Boy!

B: Oh, my God.

E: It's a transgender...

R: What?!

B: SpongeBob!

R: Oh, gosh; I'm sorry I'm not 12.

B: (laughs)

S: My 12-year-old daughter loves that show. Yes?

B: Steve, did you know that Mermaid Man died?

J: What?

S: The character? Or the actor who did the voice?

B: Of course not, silly.

E: Mercury poisoning?

B: Ernest—

S: Ernest Borgnine. Oh, did he really? I didn't know that.

R: Oh, yeah.

E: From... local...

B: How sad.

E: He was from Hamden.

R: He was supposed to be at Dragon*Con, too, I think.

Firewalk Mishap (33:20)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, finish up the news for us with an interesting firewalking mishap that happened recently.

E: Firewalking.

B: This is great.

E: People are still doing this. Tony Robbins, you know, self-help guru; you've seen him on TV; his big dumb smile and everything. Well, according to the folks in the headlines last week, in San Jose... well, I'll read you the first line of the article: "Amid inspiration talk, chanted mantras and shouts of victory at late-night firewalking event attended by thousands, came the agonized shrieks from followers whose soles were scorched by the superheated coals, witnesses said."

R: Soles of their feet, not—

E: Soles of their feet.

R: Not their souls.

B: Ha-ha!

E: Well, we don't know that for sure, though. 21 people were treated for burn injuries after going through the firewalk exercise by which Tony and others claim that if you use mind over matter, you too can walk over fiery hot coals, which burn up—at temperatures up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit? How is that possible? Well, it's an old trick is what it is, and Steve, you did a good job in your article about that this week explaining the difference between the various thermal properties of, say, wood versus metal. And also the difference between thermal conductance vs thermal capacity, and there's a big, big difference.

S: Yeah; I used iron as an example. Iron has a very high thermal conductance and capacity. It can transfer energy very quickly and it has a lot of energy to hold on to. So, if you touched a piece of iron a 2,000 degrees, it would cook you very quickly. As opposed to wood, which has very low thermal conductance, and therefore transfers energy very slowly. So you could touch it for a brief period of time without getting burned.

E: And so yeah, the coals get to about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit or so but not much of the heat gets transferred to your feet. It means you're walking—as long as you walk at a relatively brisk pace and also a short distance. Do you remember when Richard Wiseman 2 years ago at TAM9 showed a little video about some people who were doing the firewalk, but the firewalk was too long; it wasn't designed at the usual 10- to 15-foot length; this was more like a 25- to 30-foot length. And when you get to about that halfway point, you know, 15-20 feet, that's it; you have to kind of step off; you can't complete the path because you can only take so much.

S: And people were jumping off.

R: You know, you should mention that it wasn't just that the firewalk happened to be too long; it's that Richard purposely made it too long in order to embarrass them on television. It was quite funny.

S: Embarrass the firewalkers. Yeah. It's pure physics; it's just the amount of heat that it can hold; how quickly it can transfer it and that's it. And there was some discussion about maybe the ash can provide a little bit of extra insulation; I guess that is probably a minor player. But I think they major effect is just the heat—the thermal conductance of the wood.

J: I'm shocked that that guy's teeth didn't, by the power of their own will, help those people walk on the coals. You ever see that guy's grille?


E: Tony Robbins, yeah.

B: But Steve, there was another point that people bring in a lot and that's... it's called the Leidenfrost effect; it's basically people will have their... they'll have their feet be really sweaty or moist and they believe that that will actually create a barrier; a barrier to the heat. At best, I think that's a very, very minor player and I wouldn't trust it just to that effect. If you wanted to visualize it in an example, this is something that we've all seen. Say you've got a hot skittle [sic] on the burner in your kitchen and you... It reaches a certain temperature and you throw some water on it, and you've got this little bead of water that's kind of skittering around and it lasts a long, long time; it lasts much longer than you think it should, and that's because of this Leidenfrost effect where you have this vapor barrier underneath the water droplet that kind of acts as an insulation and it prevents the transfer of heat to the water droplet so that it evaporates it away. And that might be a very minor player in this, but I don't think you need that effect at all to explain it; it really was the thermal capacity and the conductance of the heat.

S: Yeah, and some people even pointed out that if your feet are sweaty, that the embers might to stick to your feet, and then you get prolonged contact, and that's really what causes the burning. But it has nothing to do with thinking about cool moss as you walk over the coals; you could think about burning hot lava and the effect will be the same.

E: Yeah, or walking on the sun or anything. Do you guys know there's a Firewalking Institute Research and Education organization—

S: I do now.

E: —called F.I.R.E., FIRE? Described—

B: Oh, God. How long did it take for them to come up with that?

E: (laughs) Three weeks. Get this, Bob: it's a world-class institute that internationally certifies firewalk instructors to the highest standard of safety, according to their press release. Because they had some things to say about this. They said, and I quote, "we can examine the odds and say that 21 out of 6,000 participants who took place in this particular firewalk equates to a 1 in 286 likelihood of receiving a second- or third-degree burn at this event", which is what happened. And then they say the lifetime risk of death from riding in a car is 1 in 84, a custom that is seldom given second thought". Uh hello? Apple, orange? What the hell?

B: Oh, my God.

R: —walk across hot coals to get to school or to the grocery store.

J: You know, I was thinking while reading this article that there's gotta be somebody that gets hired to do these events; like you don't just put on firewalking event if you don't know what you're doing, and that person that knows what they're doing has to know what the physics are, right? They have to have an idea of like how long should it be, at what stage during the fire—you know, how burnt in do the embers have to be in order for someone to walk on it. Right? There's definitely physics behind it. It just makes me think... I bet you a lot of people that set these things up actually do know... these are the parameters at have to be met in order for people not to burn themselves.

S: Oh, sure; it's a gimmick; it's a shtick to get people to think that whatever the psychological easy answers that they're peddling, to quote Lisa Simpson, is worth something, you know?

R: Yeah but that... that TV show that we mentioned earlier that Richard Wiseman participated in demonstrates clearly that there are plenty of people running these things who are true believers, because he took people who run firewalks and he extended the length and they were positive they could still do it and that they just needed to meditate a bit more and they make it across. And that's what makes the video funny is that they try it, you know. They start walking across and they're very calm and serene and then mid-way, they just suddenly run and jump into the grass.

S: It was comical.

R: So they clearly thought that this was going to work or they wouldn't have done it on camera. So I suspect that there's just a lot of people who... they learn it in terms of, "OK, this is a standard length; this is how long you wait before sending people across", you know? And they don't really think that those are hard and fast rules for a reason; I think they just think that that's, "well, that's the way it's done", you know?

Who's That Noisy? (40:30)[edit]

S: All right. Well, Evan, you're also going to get us up to date on Who's That Noisy. We're a couple of weeks behind, I believe.

E: Yeah, a couple weeks behind. So, from Episode 364[2], we revealed that the answer to that week's episode was Victor Zammit; of course you remember that, everyone. And.. but we needed to announce who guessed correctly first, and there were a lot of correct guesses on that one; good job, everyone for recognizing that fool Victor Zammit. And a gentleman by the name of Trin O.C. was the first correct guesser. Trin O.C. So, congratulations to whoever that is. And then, from the last time, from when we left you last, we had a... well, we're going to play the last noisy and let you know who, if anyone, won that one. So, here we go:

(scraping noise)

E: Do you guys remember that?

S: Yeah, that was a good one.

J: Yeah.

E: Yeah.

S: And what is it?

E: Several guesses. Well, the two people who were on the right track from the message boards... ShadowSot guessed a baby sloth. Kind of on the right track there. Moloch guessed a baby crocodile. Also sort of on the right tract there, but neither of those guesses were correct. This was a baby human.

B: Whoa.

R: Kill it!

E: A baby human. (chuckles) It's amazing what you type—when you type in, "weird noises babies make", you get all sorts of stuff that comes up and that happened to be one of them. That's a human being; a little tiny baby. Very cute, by the way.

S: Interesting. A healthy one, just making a weird noise?

E: Very healthy one just making a weird noise. I guess it kind of can contract its throat to a certain degree and push through a little bit of air that will make that gurgling, cracking sort of noise. (imitates noise) Kind of like that. Interesting. So, they were the closest but not quite right, so... I'll take the victory on that one.

S: All-righty. What do you got for this week?

E: All right.

J: (exaggerated voice) And now... it's time once again...

E: (laughs) After re-re-disposing of the monster. OK, guys... This one is short; it's a little bit difficult to hear; I think the audience is going to want to play this back a couple times but I also predict that there will be at least one correct person guessing for this week Who's That Noisy. Here we go:

(distorted voice)

E: That's it. That's all you get; that's all you need.

S: Well, we'll find out next week.

E: That's right. info at and Those are the ways to get ahold of us. Give us your guess; good luck to everybody.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Multivitamins (43:26)[edit]

S: So. We are going to do one email this week. This one comes from Chris who writes:

You guys have done a great job convincing me that vitamin mega dosing is a waste. But what about a multivitamin? Clearly it would be best if I ate a healthy diet. I should also work out every day, give to charity, volunteer, and learn to play a musical instrument. Life is hard. The REAL question is what's better: a shitty diet & NO vitamins or a shitty diet with a multivitamin? Love the show. Thanks!

S: What do you guys think about that; that's an interesting version of this question. We do get this—people ask about vitamins all the time.

E: Yeah!

S: I do think there's a huge disconnect between the information that filters down to the public and the actual science, but... what would you guys say this?

E: Well, from what I remember, we talk about vitamin is that it's used as supplement for certain deficiencies, for people who have certain conditions in which they cannot or do not get a certain vitamin and therefore, yes; they do need a supplement but that's only to be sort of done with the advice of your doctor and as part of, you know, an overall regiment [sic]. I think just taking a multivitamin for the sake of taking a multivitamin probably doesn't do much for you, 'cause if you eat a normal... sort of diet, you're going to get all the nutrients you need.

S: Yeah, but again, the premise here is: what if you don't have a healthy diet? What if you have a crappy diet?

B: Well, I think it would have to be very crappy—

S: Yeah.

B: Very, very... More than your average level of crappiness to a warrant a multivitamin. More than you would think.

S: Yeah, so I guess "it depends" is the short answer, on what you're saying, Bob. Just having an unhealthy diet; either a narrow diet or too much red meat; not enough vegetables, whatever. Whatever you consider to be an unhealthy diet. The evidence shows you cannot make up for that with multivitamin. You can't have a crappy diet and take a multivitamin and think that you're in any way compensating for your crappy diet; you're not. All the benefits—a lot of the benefits of having a nutritious diet come from having... from eating like fruits and vegetables and not eating the stuff that you shouldn't be eating, like too much fat or too much red meat or whatever. So, from that point of view the answer is no. Vitamins do not compensate for a bad diet. Probably because part of what makes a diet unhealthy is that you're getting too much of certain stuff; it's not just that you're not getting enough of the nutrients that you need. However, if your diet is bad or is just restrictive in a certain way that you actually will become deficient in a vitamin—one or more vitamins, then of course, supplementing to prevent that deficiency will help; it will treat that deficiency. But that should be targeted to whatever your deficiency is. The most common one that I see are actually vegetarians. If you don't know how to have a proper vegetarian diet, it's very common for people to become B12 deficient. So Rebecca, I think you and I have talked about this before. You can get B12 if you know what you're doing, but if people just decide without really reading about it or knowing what they're doing, they decide they're just going to eliminate all meat from their diet, and then a couple years down the road, they're B12 deficient. So they need a cookbook and B12 supplements, basically. So, there absolutely are cases like that. And of course, there's lots of specific conditions where vitamin supplementation is helpful. Folate for pregnant women, for example, is a common one. Even if you're not deficient, taking extra folate does seem to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects, but you have to be taking it before you actually know you're pregnant. By the time you know, all the interesting stuff has already happened. So, short answer is: vitamins do not compensate for a bad diet, but if it's restrictive or bad in a way that you're deficient, then yes, obviously then supplements will fix the deficiency. But for a healthy person with a good diet, there's no benefit to taking a multivitamin.

Science or Fiction (47:31)[edit]


Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. You guys ready for this week?

J: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

E: Uh huh.

J: Oh Yeah.

S: Oh yeah. Okay, here we go. Item number 1: A new study shows that while multitasking a visual task with an audio task, such as driving while talking on the phone, significantly impairs performance, combining two visual tasks had little effect. Item number 2: Scientists have identified a new syndrome—delayed severe allergic reaction to red meat caused by a tick bite. Item number 3: Researchers have found a distinct subsystem for smell in the mouse that is likely dedicated to smelling behaviorally important odors, such as fear. Bob, go first.

B: Uh, oh boy, wow. You know, you read news items—I don't know where you pull these from. Ummm.

S: And you never will. (laughs) if I can help it! Imagine how hard my job would be if you knew where I'm going for my stupid news items.

B: (laughs) All right. A new study shows that while multitasking a visual task with an audio task impairs performance like we've heard before, but combing two visuals had little effect. Uh man, you know, I'm just not—I'm just not buying that. 'Cause all the studies I've read—not recently, but we've talked about it enough—they really didn't distinguish that. And I would think that... I would think that if you had two visual tasks... I mean, the idea of going back and forth, you know, would kind of be the same as, you know, multitasking at work. You're going from one task to another—to the other and it's just never as good as just sticking with one for a while. Umm, hmm. Let's see. Got a new syndrome here, delayed severe allergic reaction to red meat caused by a tick bite. Damn. I have no idea what to say about that. I can't think of anything that would—any red flags. Oh geez, I don't know. Let's see what the third one is. Distinct subsystem for smell in the mouse dedicated to things like fear. Umm, yeah, I guess, that's possible. When a creature is experiencing fear there could be some sort of release of something that would be identifiable and associated with fear, I guess. Two visual tasks had little... All right, I'm gonna say the multitasking one. Umm, I'm—I still think that even if it's two visual tasks, that multitasking... there will be some impairment going on, because of that. So yeah, I'll say that one's fiction.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: OK, the multitasking item reminds me of something I read ages ago that showed that talking on a cell phone while driving impairs your ability to drive safely much, much more than carrying on a conversation with someone who is in the car with you. Which at the time, I think, was attributed to the fact that you don't have to guess at the other person's emotions and things when they're in the car with you. But you are using your sight. Uhh, so, more so than you would on the cell phone. So, because of that, that item rings true to me. That, uhh, audio is more demanding for us than visuals. Sooo, tentatively I'm saying that one makes sense. "Allergic reaction to red meat caused by a tick bite". I haven't—I only recently learned that you can have allergic reactions to meat. I didn't realize that was a thing. But I know that is a thing now, so I'm more likely to believe that than I might have previously. Caused by a tick bite? Yeah, I mean, I guess I can see, maybe, you know, you have a certain immune response to a tick bite that also cause an allergy that you didn't have before. So that one makes sense, too. The one that's not making sense is the idea that mice have a dedicated area for—a dedicated subsystem for smelling fear because, mostly because behaviorally important odors such as fear—that's what throws me because I don't understand how smelling fear in another animal is important to a mouse at all. Like mice are just scared of everything, all the time. Right? Like why would they care if the cat that's after them is afraid of something. Suddenly they are gonna turn around and charge the cat? No, that's not gonna happen. I've never seen that happen. All I've ever seen is mice running for their dear little lives. So, I can't see any reason for the mouse to have the ability to detect fear in other animals. So, that one, I'm going to say is the fiction.

S: OK. Evan?

E: Well, let's have a look. Umm, the multitasking one; we've spoken quite a few times on the show about multitasking. Umm, but specifically, visual task with an audio task? I'm not sure we've necessarily phrased it in a specific context such as this. So, umm, it's very interesting. Significantly impairs performance, combining two visual effects had little effect. Two visual tasks had little effect. Well, driving is a visual task; what else would I be doing while I'm driving? Visual task, well— texting is a visual task. Kinda thinking that, I mean, well that's other tasks as well, but certainly visual's a main component of that. Uhh, hhm, I'm not sure about that one. Umm, the second one about the new syndrome. Severe—delayed severe allergic reaction to red meat. And the tick bites the carrier? So apparently what's happening here is that the tick bite carries something in its saliva? Little tick's saliva? That gets into your system, through the blood and causes you to have an allergic reaction to red meat? Is the anything—I can't—I'm trying to think of what else to kinda equate this to. But I can't think of an example off the top of my head. (sucks breath) So, moving one to the last one. Mi—I mean—(sighs) Mice that have a distinct subsystem for smell? That smells behavioral[ly] important odors as fear. I'm thinking that that one's, of the three—I kinda think that that one probably is the most likely to be true. You know, they find all kinds of cool things about mice. Mice are the classic test animal. But a distinct subsystem. Uhh, I'm not sure, that one seems to make a lot of sense to me in a certain way. Umm, Rebecca, you were talking about how mice are kinda fearful and skittish of everything and I think that actually plays into, uhh, why they may have a subsystem for it that they detected. So, it's between, for me, multitasking or the tick bite and allergy. (sucks breath) Uhh, well, I don't like the two visual tasks having little effect. I don't know about that, I think you really gotta keep your eyes on the road is the bottom line. So, I'll say that that one's the fiction.

J: That a boy!

S: (drowsily) I'm sorry, which one?

E: The multitasking is the fiction.

S: I'm sorry; I was doing something else. All right, Jay?

E: (laughs)

J: I'm gonna go in reverse order. I absolutely think the one about the mice smelling fear—being wired to smell fear. Sure, that makes a lot of sense to me. I'm curious to know—

R: Seriously?

J: Yeah, just—

R: Just me?

J: Well, you know, I don't want to throw out the big pheromone thing. I mean, it's like people throw that word around like, you know, it explains all these different things or whatever. But absolutely, you know, sure they could smell—you know, you were talking about the cat as a predator and all that and, sure, why wouldn't they be able to smell it. Smell things that the animal is putting off or whatever. Yeah, that makes sense. The one about the red meat caused by tick bites; the allergy situation. The only thing about that one I don't like is the word "delayed". Like a "delayed severe allergic reaction". Why would it be delayed? It's very strange. I hate ticks and I hate being bitten by ticks and I hate everything to do with them. And I think we should try to destroy all ticks and bedbugs. But anyway, I don't know about this one, I mean, what have I got to say other than it's weird and I hope that that one's the fiction. But the one that I didn't like from the moment that I heard it, and that's why I went in reverse order, is this whole hoo-hah about combing visual tasks has little effect; that's BS. Combining visual tasks, meaning two different things you have to visually keep track of at the same time, that one is the fiction by far. Is the fiction. Thank you.

S: OK.

J: Thank you.

S: All right. So—

R: I'm alone in here? I can't believe I'm the only—like, uh!

S: You're alone.

J: A-looone!

R: Immediately the mouse one.

S: You're alone. Jay, what about bed ticks? What do you feel about them?

R: What the fuck is a bed tick?

J: Oh my God. Imagine if there were bed ticks! (laughs) Oh my God. No!

R: Dear Lord, no. Something new to be scared of.

E: Maybe there are bed ticks.

S: All right. You all agree that scientists have identified a new syndrome, a delayed severe allergic reaction to red meat caused by a tick bite. You all think that one is science. And that one is... science.

J: Uh, why is it delayed?

R: Yay!

J: Why delayed?

S: I don't know. But it's the first one. It's the first delayed anaphylactic or severe allergic reaction that has been identified.

E: Wow.

S: This is a study—really a case series, where they identified a few patients that had the same syndrome. They were all bitten by the lone star tick and had a—

R: How ironic, considering the Lone Star Steakhouse.

S: Yeah. So the—

E: (chuckles)

R: Sorry.

E: I like that.

S: The tick has a specific carbohydrate that produces an immune response. The same carbohydrate is in the red meat, meat derived from mammals, so can produce a secondary or an anaphylactic severe allergic reaction. There are a couple of firsts here. This is the first identified anaphylactic reaction to a non-protein, to a carbohydrate. It's the first delayed reaction, 6-8 hours delayed after eating the meat. So like, you have a steak dinner and then in the middle of the night you wake up and can't breathe.

J: Yikes.

S: Yeah.

J: Ticks really suck.

S: Triggered by a tick bite! Yeah, that's cool. It's very interesting.

J: I mean, seriously—

S: Imagine how hard it is to make that diagnosis. But they're saying that if there are physicians in this part of the world, basically in the southwest, and patients present with an anaphylactic reaction after consuming red meat you should consider this newly identified syndrome. Very interesting. There are a lot of new things in there. Umm, let's go back to number 1: A new study shows that while multitasking a visual task with an audio task, such as driving while talking on the phone, significantly impairs performance, combining two visual tasks had little effect. Bob, Jay and Evan, you all think this one is the fiction. Rebecca—

E: (resignedly) Uhh.

S: You think this one is science.

R: No whammy, no whammy, no whammy.

E: This is it.

S: This one is—

E: I mean, this is it, right?

J: Oh—

S: The fiction!

E, B, J: (collective joyous moaning)

S: This one is fiction! I suppose you could have thought that maybe, like, if you were integrating two visual into one, sort of, meta-visual task that wouldn't be multitasking but—no, no. Uhh, but no. In fact, the study showed that combining two visual tasks is even worse. Has more of a negative effect—

J: (sing-songy) That's what I said.

S: Yeah; That was the way to go with this one.

J: Thank you.

R: Boo.

B: C'mon, it was obvious.

E: Wow. (imitates cat)

S: They used eye-tracking technology to see how the subjects were handling the tasks that they were given but also their performance on the tasks. And, yeah, when trying to combine two visual tasks their performance greatly suffered. The other interesting wrinkle here though is that when asked how they did, the people who were trying to multitask two visual tasks thought that they did better than when trying to multitask a visual and an audio task, even though they did worse. So they had a false sense of security, if you will, with the two visual tasks. So they were trying to model what would be worse, talking on the cell phone while driving or texting while driving. And definitely, texting while driving is much worse.

J: That's odd.

S: Kind of seems intuitive to me. I mean, you are visually distracted trying to text.

R: Yeah, but, and you're using your fingers.

S: Yeah, although I don't—I don't think that's the component though; that is the problem.

R: Really?

S: It is just the distraction. It is the diminishing of attention. You have to look away from the road to text. You brought up the previous data which shows that it's more distracting to talk on the phone than to someone who's sitting next to you in the car. We've brought this up before; you know, there's speculation about why that might be. There's the extra set of eyes, (do they) compensate for the distraction somewhat? My personal experience is that I find it really hard to talk on a cell phone, in that it takes a certain amount of concentration because the cell phone companies typically give just enough bandwidth so that human speech is recognizable. But not a lot more than that. So they are always restraining the bandwidth and I just find the audio quality—even as phones get better, the audio quality is really such that I really have to pay attention to understand what the person is saying over a cell phone.

R: Yeah.

S: Do you guys find that too?

J: No!

R: Yeah, I guess. I don't drive.

J: Ahhhh!

E: Yeah, that's right.

J: No, I don't agree with you.

S: And now we've got to use the the hands-free devices, so you have some crappy ear phone thing; you're not even holding the phone up to your head. It's even harder.

J: What do you mean, it's harder?

E: It's harder. The voice, the sound quality is worse with the hands-free ear buds.

J: My head phones are epic. I have Bose headphones. They are awesome. You don't need anything else.

S: I have a good set of ear buds; might be the quality of the microphone at the other end. So, let's go on to number 3: researchers have found a distinct subsystem for smell in the mouse that is likely dedicated to smelling behaviorally important odors, such as fear. That one is, of course, science.

R: Boo.

S: This is an interesting bit of neuroscience. So, this is a series of experiments that have been done over the last few years, but culminating in a recent study that shows that mice have this cluster of odor-sensitive neurons that are distinct from the general olfactory neurons in the glomeruli; that's part of the nose that senses the smell.

J: You just made that up.

S: Nope. They actually go to a different part of the brain. It's a different track. The same pathway was found to be activated previously by previous research when animals smell things like urine of carnivores, like lion or tiger urine. So chemicals found in that urine actually will trigger this alternate pathway. So the last bit that the researchers need to do to close the loop, which is why I said "likely" is to show that it's actually plugging into, say, the amygdala; the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions. That's what they suspect. And that would certainly close the loop on the hypothesis; what purpose this is fulfilling. But all the pieces that we have in place so far seem to be pointing in that direction. Rebecca, the thing about smelling fear—it's not that you're smelling fear in the predator, you're smelling fear in your fellow mice, right? If the mice next to you are afraid, then you should be afraid as well. 'Cause maybe they see something you don't see.

J: I screwed that up, too.

S: Yeah. But it's also—it's not just fear; it's sort of the chemicals in carnivore piss or other emotionally important... And it also makes sense, in that the more we learn about the different parts of the sensory systems, they are divided often into different streams of information based upon significance. For example, there are different visual streams. We have visual streams for things that are alive and things that are not alive. They're processed in different parts of the brain. There's an interesting story behind that, too, because it's not just alive or not alive; it's things that we think are acting with agency versus not acting with agency. Which is why, in my opinion, we can relate to cartoon characters. We know that they're not alive but they're acting as if they are alive, and that means we—our brain processes them as if they're living agents, even though they don't have the other characteristics of being an agent, like being three-dimensional. That does not appear to be necessary for your brain to interpret something as having agency. Did you guys see that; did we talk about this, about the researchers who created this little animation where it's basically a triangle and a circle and a square moving around?

E: Yeah.

S: Did you see that? And they ask the subjects, "what's going on in the story here" and people have a pretty easy time making up elaborate stories; "OK, the triangle's the daddy and the daddy's threatening—the child and the mother's protecting them." It's just shapes. But because they're moving in a way that even barely suggests some kind of agency, we just happily process it that way and imbue agency onto those triangles and squares. So, it's interesting; it's the way our brain's hard-wired. So it makes perfect sense to me that we would have a different stream of olfactory information just for those smells that should trigger an immediate instinctive behavior, especially a survival behavior. It would go to a different part of the brain. So, yeah. Interesting. So, good work, guys.

R: Blah. Whatever.

B: And by "guys", you mean males.

S: Male. This time I mean male. Rebecca, you have a pretty good track record when you're by yourself—

E: Yeah.

S: —you tend to do better than 50-50.

B: I was nervous.

E: I was sweatin' it out here; how about you, Jay? What were you doing? Ah, never mind.

J: Evan, you have to learn how to not care.

S: Yeah, Jay's carefully cultivated that over the years.

R: Said by the guy who regularly screams when he doesn't get the right answer.

J: You can't prove that. All right. I have a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:07:11)[edit]

S: Speaking of screaming, Jay do you have a quote?

J: Yes. I have a quote for you, sir. Steve, I have a quote that was sent in by two different people moments after each other; like, it was amazing and I had to go with the person who sent it in first, so Richard Lane, thank you for sending in the following quote:

Homeopaths do not have a physical brain, but merely "skull water" with the memory of brains.

J: That was a quote by a comedian called Robin Ince. (distant) Robin Ince!

Announcements (1:07:39)[edit]

S: All right, guys; well, thank you for joining me this week. This show's going up on Saturday, July 28, which is my daughter's birthday. She's going to be 13 years old. Entering the world—

E: Julia's a teenager?

S: —of teenager. Yeah.

R: Happy birthday, Julia.

E: Holy moley.

S: So, I wanted to say happy birthday to my daughter Julia.

E: And—but... Sunday somebody else is having a birthday that we all know and love and couldn't be doing any of this without—

R: And is also a teenager... at heart.

E: At heart. Bob, Jay, any ideas who that might be?

J: No.

E: (laughs)

R: I think they're playing dumb, because aren't all their birthdays like right in a row?

S: Well, Bob was July 4th, Mine is July 29, the day after my daughter's, and Jay is August 11th. All right after each other.

E: We've got a slew of Novella bir—Steve, happy birthday!

S: Well, thank you, Evan.

R: Happy birthday, Steve.

B: Feliz compleanos.

E: Have a great one.

S: And thank you for joining me this week, everyone.

E: It was good to be here.

R: We already said thank you.


S: All right. Well, then, until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Voice-over: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. 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 leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.


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