SGU Episode 378

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SGU Episode 378
13th October 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

Dyson sphere.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 377                      SGU 379

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


RH: Robert Hutton

Quote of the Week

The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter — for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way. He lives and labors and hopes.

Nikola Tesla

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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 Tuesday, October 9th, 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: Hey, how are my teammates tonight?

J: Pretty good.

S: Pretty good.

J: What's up with you?

B: Pretty good.

J: What team are we on?

E: The Fighting Space Dinosaurs!

J: Oh, of course, of course!

This Day in Skepticism (0:35)[edit]

R: Obviously. Hey, guess what today is?

E: Uhh...

R: Saturday, October 13th. Today... is the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun, which was an event in 1917, when—in which tens of thousands of people claim to have seen the Virgin Mary appearing in the sun. This is something we've talked about before[link needed], it's known as the Lady of Fatima apparition. She supposedly appeared to three shepherd children, who—and told them that she was going to reappear soon, and so they went and told everyone, and for some reason, tons of people believed them, and everybody went out and stared at the sun, until they saw the blessed Virgin Mary. So that was October 13th, 1917. On October 13th, 1930, the event was accepted as a miracle, and on October 13th, 1951, the papal legate Cardinal Tedeschini told a million people gathered at Fatima that on October 30th, 31st, November 1st, and November 8th, 1950, Pope Pius XII also witnessed the miracle of the sun from the Vatican Gardens.

E: The only miracle is that not everyone went blind by staring into the sun.

R: Yeah, I mean, ten minutes is a long time. Depends on how carefully they stared, how long they each stared.

B: How cloudy it was.

E: And I bet you some people cheated too as they realized, wow, this really, really hurts, they kind of, maybe, averted their eyes momentarily.

S: But, Joe Nickell says, Evan, they probably weren't looking at the sun, but at a sundog or a mirage of the sun[1]; a mock sun, if you will.

E: Yeah.

B: Really?

S: So it wasn't really as bright as looking at the sun itself, just an atmospheric effect. And of course, there are as many different reports about what people saw as there were people there. Some people saw nothing, some people saw rainbow hues, some people saw the quote-unquote, "sun dancing around". So that's consistent with an optical illusion or an atmospheric effect. It was a subjective experience by the viewer, not something objective that everybody was seeing with a reasonable similarity of accounts, so... it's pretty clearly just—that's what you get when you stare at something really bright in the sky for a long time, you're gonna start seeing weird stuff.

J: But there was some pretty serious mass delusion or hallucination; what would you call it, Steve?

S: I don't know that that's the case, I mean, I don't know that you need to invoke a mass hallucination or mass delusion, more that just some people saw some atmospheric effects or illusions, and there was a shared belief; people were there because they were looking for a miracle; they were there to see a miracle; they were there because they shared a faith, and they saw something that they interpreted in line with their faith.

B: Yeah, Jay, don't forget, expectation and desire can have a huge effect on what you perceive.

S: That's all you need.

B: Big big influence.

J: Sure, definitely, I mean I've read quite a bit about this... situation, I mean, what happened there, and there were reports of people saying that everybody was drenched from a downpour and then all their clothes dried in a matter of seconds, and there's a lot of statements being made about that, and I was just wondering, I mean, this didn't actually happen that long ago, wasn't—there are people that are still alive that were there, right?

S: So, it's getting close to a hundred years, right; it's 95 years ago, so, only little kids would still be alive.

R: So, no, probably not.

J: Yeah, actually, I've read about the—it was so long ago that there were people still alive. It's a sign of the age.


S: Right, so, yeah, there was nothing miraculous. The thing is, accounts like that—then you have rumour, and, you know, urban legend kind of effects taking over, where you get all kinds of weird reports about what happened. I always like to think of this in terms like we have these modern episodes where we're close enough to it where you could actually look at newspaper reports of different accounts of what happened that day. You can investigate it in a way that you can't investigate, for example, miracles attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament, but, you could see how those kinds of stories would develop surrounding some kind of, just—the claim that there's something miraculous happening develops spontaneously. Just imagine how superstitious farmers living 2000 years ago were.

J: Yeah.

News Items[edit]

Nobel Prizes 2012 (5:04)[edit]

S: Well, we do have something serious to go on to: The Nobel Prizes for 2012!

E: (mock fanfare)

S: (laughter)

R: (feigning ignorance) I thought we talked about these last week, didn't we?

E: That was the Nobel horn.

R: (understanding) Ohhh!

J: (laughter)

S: The Ignobels.

J: Thanks, Ev!

S: We're only going to have time to talk about two this week: the Nobel Prize in Physics and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. We'll do the Chemistry award next week. The Medicine one is interesting; you guys know who got this?

J: No.

S: Two guys whose research was separated by 44 years. Which I thought was very interesting.

B: Whoa!

S: So far apart. 1962, John Gurdon discovered that you can replace the nucleus of a frog embryo with the nucleus of a mature intestinal cell, and that new embryo could still develop into a normal tadpole. This was a stunning proof of concept which showed that, contrary to common belief at the time, that even a fully mature and differentiated cell that had been dedicated to being just one type of cell, like an intestinal cell, still had the capability of undifferentiating or de-differentiating back to an embryonic state and then turning into every kind of cell necessary to make a whole organism. It wasn't known if that would be possible or not; it was possible that once a cell had matured to a certain point it had forever gone down that path and not only deactivated genes but permanently turned them off in some way, or just that the process wasn't reversible. But what he showed, what Gurton showed, was that the process was completely 100% reversible. Again, very stunning concept at the time.

E: What made him think it was reversible, or did he not have that expectation when he was doing—?

S: I think he suspected that that was the case, that's why he did the experiment, but... his colleagues at the time were highly skeptical of the result; they didn't believe it at first, until it was replicated, so it was just like science is supposed to work. A new, really radically new idea, they said, "wait a minute, this doesn't make any sense; before we take it seriously, let's make sure it's reproducible". It was, and then changed our understanding of biology. 44 years later—and we actually talked about this news item in 2006[link needed]—Shinya Yamanaka did a series of studies looking at the genetic mechanism of turning a mature cell into a pluripotent stem cell. So he took cells from a mouse, mature cells from a mouse, and by tweaking just four genes, was able to turn it into a pluripotent stem cell. Remember we talked about the fact that this was a total game-changer in terms of the stem cell controversy.

E: (agreeing) Mm-hm!

S: You no longer needed to harvest embryonic stem cells; you could just take skin cells or fibroblasts, turn them into stem cells that could then be used to become any other kind of cell that you want. And it was far simpler than we had assumed; we thought, must have been a really complicated process, but it actually turned out to be fairly manageable, only a few genes were necessary in order to make that process happen. That created the potential for a couple of things: one, make stem cells without having to harvest them from either fetuses or embryos; and two: the ability to take a mature person, someone who's 40's, 50's, 60's, you know, old; take a cell from them, turn it into a stem cell, and then, for example, grow body parts that are perfectly matched to them, grow a heart, a lung, a liver for example, whatever. Total game-changer, in terms of stem cell potential. You know, we're still in that early stage of practical applications, so these two guys who shared the Nobel Prize showed theoretically the potential of stem cells, but we still have—it's still a very difficult technology to implement. The next is the Nobel Prize in Physics. This was given to two researchers, Serge Haroche and David Wineland, for independently inventing and developing methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature. So, we do talk a lot about quantum mechanics on this show, mainly because it's so widely misunderstood and misapplied; it's the favorite go-to fake explanation for anything paranormal.

R: The Deepak effect.

S: Yeah, the Deepak—just make some hand-waving, "it's all quantum mechanics"—

E: Quantum, quantum!

S: One of the aspects of quantum mechanics is this notion of, at the quantum level, our particles can be in a state that is not fully determined, either a superposition of states or just in an indetermined state. However, when you make any attempt to look at or measure those states, by necessity you're interacting with them in some way, and that interaction collapses the indeterminacy into more of a classical defined state. So you can't see the quantum weirdness when you try to look at it.

B: It's decoherence.

S: Yeah, decoherence, it's collapsing of the waveform, whatever; you hear different terminology for that. So, that was a conundrum, in that you can't—you could never experimentally verify the quantum weirdness cause then, any time you try to look at, it's not there. So what these two guys realized is that you can look at it in subtle ways; maybe not full-on in the face, but you can kind of look at it out of the corner of your eye, you know, metaphorically you could interrogate these quantum systems in subtle ways without collapsing them or making the quantum weirdness go away. And interestingly, they did it in complementary ways, coming at it from different angles. One of them looked at the quantum properties of light, by interacting it with atoms and electrons, and the other looked at quantum properties of protons, neutrons, and electrons, by interacting it with photons, with particles of light. So they kind of did it in opposite ways, but they achieved the same end: able to experimentally verify this quantum indeterminacy by this more gentle or subtle way of looking at these systems without making the quantum effects go away entirely. So it did open up a completely new avenue of research in quantum mechanics.

J: Do you really think, though, Steve, that there's something to this—when I turn it over in my head, I'm seeing—the idea of superposition is that there really isn't a designated way to describe what position the quantum state is in, right? It's in all possible positions.

B: Guys, it's also important to note that this isn't just some theoretical thing that physicists think is happening; I mean, they've actually done experiments where they can somehow show that it is in this superposition. It is actually in multiple state at the same exact time.

S: Well, Bob, let me play Devil's Advocate there for a minute, because just from a theoretical point of view...

B: How could you know that without interacting without interacting and collapsing the wavefunction.

S: Hang on. From a philosophical point of view, all of science is just creating an explanatory model that makes predictions, and we don't ever know if we're describing the way the world actually is, or we're just coming up with a way that we can understand, and think about the world in a way that makes predictions. The only thing we can really say about any kind of scientific theory is how well it makes predictions, not if it is the way nature really is, and I think that's true of all of our theories but it certainly applies to quantum mechanics, to some degree, the question is to what degree. We have a certain description of quantum behaviour that predicts how quantum states are going to behave experimentally, and we make sense of that as best we can with our human brain, but we really have no way of knowing if it's describing how nature actually works, or just the closest approximation or model of it that we can come up with. I do have this suspicion, this strong suspicion, that our quantum-mechanical theories are missing something significant, and while they may be good predictive models of what we're going to see experimentally, that we're missing something conceptually fundamental about the world at that level; what's really going on. Maybe it's a limitation of the human brain, maybe it's just we haven't had somebody, the right combination of genius and opportunity and knowledge, for somebody to make that mental leap, essentially, the kind of leap that Einstein made with relativity; we're just waiting for that person to come around, the opportunity to come around, to really take us to a much deeper level in our understanding.

B: I don't know...

S: It's kind of an easy thing to say, to predict but... maybe it's just purely my bias, my uncomfortableness with the whole notion of quantum mechanics that makes me feel that that's probably the case.

B: It's funny you invoke Einstein, cause he—I think he felt similar to how you feel...

S: Yeah.

B: He couldn't buy that quantum mechanics was fundamental, and all the experiments and thinking since then, since he died, since even—since the 50's, 60's, and 70's point to the fact that it is fundamental, and any theory that transcends it would still need to have—wouldn't change really anything that we already know—

E: Has to encapsulate it, yeah.

B: —about quantum mechanics. And so I think I would disagree a little bit from what you're saying, if you think that there is something much more fundamental about it.

S: Well, Bob, we're not disagreeing with each other necessarily, cause it could still be fundamental as a predictive model, but still, there'd be something deeper in terms of trying to conceptualize what's really going on. It's like classical mechanics and relativity. They were missing something fundamental, but their predictive models are still perfectly good...

B: Yeah, but...

S: They still work, in most situations, but there was something they weren't really describing what was happening in the universe...

B: I understand that. Yeah, one theory, what was the term... "subsumes" or...

S: Yeah.

B: One term - one concept subsumes the other, but the thing is though, the thinking with quantum mechanics is that, once that more fundamental foundation underneath quantum mechanics is found, then you would be able to explain things like entanglement and also you'd be able to explain things like superposition and the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics.

S: Yeah.

B: Cause as we know, quantum mechanics is fundamentally random; there is—you said "makes predictions"; yeah, we can make predictions, but we can only predict, "well, there's a ten percent chance of this, and a thirty percent chance of that", that's the best we will probably ever get, and that's what rankled Einstein so much is that this inherent—this spookiness and this unpredictability, and I don't think we're necessarily ever going to get around that, even if we do find some other theory that can encapsulate it, I don't think we're necessarily going to get around that and if that's what your main concern about quantum mechanics is, my suggestion is, get used to it!

S: Yeah, well, here's my question, Bob...

E: Suck it up, in other words!

S: I acknowledge all that. Here's my question though, is... let's say we do get to some deeper level of understanding of quantum mechanics, is it going to make less sense or more sense at that point?

B: Haha!

S: Is it going to become even more mysterious and quirky and mind-boggling? Or is the light going to go off and go, "Ohhh, now it all makes sense, now I get it!" I don't know, I suspect it'll become even more weird.

B: I think, yeah, I think the former, and I think this is one of the examples of things like trying to teach a dog calculus; it's just, you're never going to do it. I just think we've reached a wall, where we'll never be able to wrap our head around, not only quantum mechanics, but anything more fundamental—

S: Right.

B: —I think would just be forever beyond our grasp. Until, of course we uplift our brains and then we can have that aha moment!

E: Yeah, what about turning a computer like Watson loose on the problem, you know?

B: Well, yeah, I think an artificial intelligence will probably be the first conscious entity to perhaps understand that.

S: We have to program into them a deep and abiding desire to explain their knowledge to us.

B: Yeah, that's right.

E: And to not kill us in the process.

S: Right. (laughs)

E: Please!

Looking for Dyson Spheres (17:50)[edit]

S: All right, let's move on. Bob, you're going to tell us about how to find alien civilizations.

B: Yeah, so Penn State astronomers have recently been given a grant for a two-year search for signals from extraterrestrials. That doesn't sound too unusual, but they're not looking for radio waves, though, they're looking for the telltale signals of a power source used by supercivilizations, namely Dyson spheres, used to capture all or much of a star's entire energy output. These are three Penn State astronomers that are led by Jason Wright, and they're using grant money from the John Templeton Foundation's New Frontiers program, which is designed to answer fundamental questions about existence and the universe. And the scientists are using NASA's Wide Field Infrared Surveys, or WISE, satellite to look for these telltale infrared signatures from Dyson spheres.

S: Now, Bob, before we move on, I do want to mention that generally I'm not a big fan of the Templeton Foundation, because they—

B: Yes, I agree!

S: They support a lot of muddling of science and spirituality and religion—

R: Chopra-esque.

S: Yeah, by "big questions", they're not talking about necessarily big scientific questions, so much as big spiritual questions about what does it all mean. They fund a lot of nonsense—

B: Yeah, and also trying to join faith and science.

S: Yeah.

B: Which I think is a mistake. And I absolutely agree, Steve, and I even hesitated mentioning them in my talk.

S: No, it's good! This is the-

B: That's how I feel about that...

R: It's good to know.

S: It's good to know; this is the only thing they've funded that I think was worthwhile, that I personally know of.

B: Absolutely.

R: And it's interesting timing too, because Templeton was set up as a response to the Nobel Prize, as a way to do the Nobel Prize for religion, basically, and it's always—one of the rules is that the prize has to be greater than the Nobel Prize.

E: One-up.

R: Yeah, it's basically designed to one-up the Nobel.

B: Well, these objects, these Dyson spheres were hypothesized by mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson in 1960. Now, one common conception of these things sees them as solid spheres of material surrounding a star at, say, planetary distances, like say 1 AU, 93 million miles, which is the distance from the Earth to our Sun.

E: Average.

B: And their purpose is to absorb the entire energy output of the star for use by whoever, the civilization, the engineers that created it. And this is of course engineering at a scale that we can't even possibly imagine pulling off. What we're talking about here though is astronomical-scale engineering or simply astro-engineering, which is engineering at a scale that is just mind-boggling. Now Dyson's train of thought kind of went like this: he was thinking, all right, energy consumption of a technological race can increase at a pace that would eventually—the planet itself could no longer supply what was needed. Just looking at our energy needs, our energy needs have doubled in the past 30 years. If you just extrapolate that, then our needs will outstrip what the Earth can supply in just four centuries, and I think that will be even a lot sooner than that. So he believed that one of the only options available to these civilizations included harnessing the parent star's energy. This is, of course, a titanic amount of energy; the amount of energy that intersects with the Earth from the Sun alone is about ten thousand times the amount that our industrialized nations currently utilize. So the idea of this solid shell of matter, though, photovoltaics or whatever analog they have in their civilization, is not really tenable. It couldn't really be pulled off for multiple reasons, one of them being the fact that you can't really keep the shell stable in orbit, and to orbit around the Sun, eventually it would destabilize and collide with the Sun, and there's just lots of problems with actually a solid shell around the star. But interestingly, though, there's enough matter in our solar system to construct something like that, so if we ever wanted to do it, there is actually enough matter to do that, depending of course how thin you make it. So in reality, civilizations would probably create something better described as a Dyson swarm, which is a huge discrete orbiting solar collectors that could be built incrementally over time, and absorb, of course less energy than a sphere, but there'd still be plenty of energy, even for beings like the Organians, the Q, or even the mice that run the planet Earth. So, if—(indignant) come on, give me a chuckle!

(fake laughter)

B: Jesus!

R: We all got the reference, so you don't need to...

E: Star Trek.

B: Just fake it. Fake it, kids. So if Dyson is correct and a decent number of super-advanced alien societies have created these Dyson swarms to power their iPhone Five Millions or whatever, their ultra-high-def yottaflop universe simulations, then they should be detectable by us, and by the infrared—the heat that is emitted by this sphere or swarm. And I think this is a great idea because if we assume that these incredibly advanced civilizations exist, then certain types of astro-engineering that they would do would, by their very nature, be detectable by us. And I think this is one great example. But where this idea falls down a bit though, however, is the premise that the Dyson swarm creation is very likely. Everything I read made it seem like—at least Dyson believed that this is almost an inevitable occurrence, once you reach this milestone where you need more energy than your local environment can provide. He kind of made it seem like, yeah, it's almost inevitable, and I just don't share that high degree of confidence; I think there might be lots of different ways that these super-high-tech societies can get their energy. I tried to do some research on what some of these were. I came across a couple good ones; perhaps they can capture the energy from gamma-ray bursts. Now I don't know...

J: Wow!

B: ...How much energy—Yeah, I mean there's a lot of energy from gamma-ray bursts out there, but I don't know how feasible that is, to power your society from them, but it's just an idea.

J: Yeah, how do you predict when one's going to happen?

B: All you really know, Jay, is the frequency; so many bursts will occur in this area of space over this certain amount of time. Another option would be that they could feed stars into black holes and then live off the energy that's emitted by the accretion disk that's swirling around the black holes.

R: Harsh!

B: Or maybe these civilizations are just jacked into their own private universe, and they don't really need that much energy; just plug in the computer and live your life in whatever universe you want to live in; they just don't need that much energy. Then there's also this other idea that, what if the civilization doesn't want to be detected. They could possibly cloak the infrared emission from their Dyson sphere or swarm, so that nobody else can find them. And this is actually feasible; they could come up with some clever way to get rid of the waste heat that's generated by the swarm; that's possible.

S: Yeah, I was thinking about that, maybe, wouldn't they be so super-efficient that they would just be using that infrared part of the spectrum rather than having it be waste heat that we could detect?

B: Yeah, but think about it though: they're getting so much energy from their sun, and they've got this very low-energy, very hard to use waste heat, they could just let that go and not even worry about it. Why would you care about a quadrillionth of a percent of the energy that you're getting just cause it's wasted away in heat. "Oh, we've got to capture that little bit too!" You know, I think they could safely ignore it unless they're really dedicated to privacy and they don't want to be found, and there's ways to deal with that. One way would be to build a Dyson swarm that's a hundred times bigger than was necessary. If you build one big enough, which would be huge, say about twice the distance of Pluto when it's at its farthest in its orbit around the Sun, we're talking—could you imagine a swarm of photovoltaics twice the distance of Pluto? That's just mind-boggling. But the idea though is that if you have it that big, then the waste heat that would emanate from the shell or whatever you're using would be so cool that it would be indistinguishable from the cosmic microwave background radiation, and then their existence would get lost in the noise of the universe, and they would be essentially undetectable. So that's just one way that they could feasibly deal with it, and I would think that if civilizations are doing this, then I don't think they're going to care too much, but who knows what's with their thinking? But it doesn't matter to me though; I think this is a great idea even though these little potential problems that could crop up. In some ways I think detecting a Dyson swarm is a lot cooler than a boring radio signal. To me, it's just so much more awe-inspiring to imagine that we detected aliens, not because they were sitting in some super-radio antenna, pinging the universe with hellos, but because they had the audacity and the skill and the need to build something on the scale of the Sun, which is just amazing to me, and I'd love to find evidence of that.

Simon Singh and Libel (27:00)[edit]

S: Rebecca, Simon Singh might be in a little bit more... trouble again. You know, he might be facing another lawsuit. Tell us about that.

R: Yeah, that guy just cannot keep his trap shut.

J: (laughter)

E: Likes pissing off other people.

R: Yeah, well I should note that Simon started a really awesome thing that I don't think we've ever mentioned here before, but it's called the Nightingale Trust, I believe, and the idea is that being—if some of our listeners will recall, Simon Singh criticized chiropractic, and particularly the British Chiropractic Association, a few years ago; they sued him for libel, Simon won and went on to basically change the libel laws in the UK; help other organizations get the libel laws changed. They're still in the midst of doing all that, but meanwhile, Simon has gone on to be a bit of a crusader for good science; fighting against pseudoscience. Well, the most recent: recently, a photo of a magazine has been making its way around Twitter. The magazine's called "What Doctors Don't Tell You", and it is probably exactly what you're thinking right now, if you're imagining that BS from Kevin Trudeau sort of stuff, that's what it is. So some of the articles that are on the cover, just listed on the cover, things like "Reverse bone loss for good: the secret your doctor doesn't know"; "Cervical cancer alert! What every mother and daughter should know about the new jab"; "How I avoided a hysterectomy through diet"; "Rock and roll dads: you can regain your hearing"; "Sunbathe your diabetes away"; "End your child's wheezing without drugs: asthma exclusive". So, as you can imagine...

E: (sarcasm) What's wrong with those statements?

R: (laughs) Yeah... there's some... disturbing ideas lurking within there. The tried-and-true anti-vax stuff, in terms of the cervical cancer, that's referring to the HPV vaccine; the idea of not giving your kids the drugs they may need for asthma; avoiding a hysterectomy through diet—

E: What!?

R: —I found particularly horrific. Simon Singh picked up on this and tweeted some less-than-flattering things, all true though and in Simon's trademark style, which is actually being quite polite while he's tearing someone to shreds. Simon contacted Comag, the distributors of the magazine, and—oh, I should mention that the magazine appears in several chains in the UK like bookstores and pharmacies and grocery stores. So, Simon contacted Comag and raised his concerns that this magazine was promoting pseudoscience that could actually be really harmful to the audience. The magazine responded basically by telling him to go screw, and the editor of the magazine has been all over Twitter and Facebook talking all kinds of trash about Simon. And one of the things that she tweeted was that she—let me read this—first she called Simon and Hayley Stevens, another skeptic in the UK—she called them "bully-boys" who were trying to censor them. She writes, "Simon Singh, who's leading the charge, was just told by our distributor essentially to shove off, and reminded that tweeting untrue statements about us or them is, well, libel". Simon had also been told by the distributor that they were seeking legal advice, so with those things in mind, a lot of people were thinking, "wow, these guys have not been paying attention to what happened with British Chiropractic", and that they were going to move forward and actually sue Simon. Now the editor has sort of pulled back; she's deleted the Facebook update in which she mentions libel, and she goes on to claim that she never mentioned libel, and further says that she has no plans to pursue legal action against Simon, but she's attempting to stop the quote-unquote "bullies" from censoring the magazine. So now, skeptics in the UK are doing a great job, they're hammering away at the distributors and also talking to the various places where the magazines are sold, attempting to get them pulled from the shelves because of how dangerous they are. As of right now, I don't think that the magazine has been pulled, but you can join the fight; you can go on Twitter, if you follow Simon Singh; I think he's just @slsingh, Simon's been giving people good instruction on how they can best focus their energies in terms of writing letters to certain people or signing a petition or whatever it may be, Simon'll probably be a good point person for that.

J: That's pretty inspiring to think that he's putting himself in harm's way again; I mean, hopefully nothing bad'll come out of this, but Simon is definitely not afraid to get himself in trouble.

R: Oh yeah, he's tireless. I think most people would've folded when the British Chiropractic Association threatened a lawsuit. Most people would've folded when they actually sued. Most people would've folded a year into the lawsuit, and most people after winning the lawsuit would not practically court another court case (laughs), but Simon luckily isn't most people, he's awesome.

S: How can you go after these people without courting those kind of libel threats? You know, that kind of goes with the territory.

R: Yeah, I don't mean to say that he's doing anything wrong or that he's—

S: No, he's just doing his job!

R: —over the top. Yeah! He's simply pointing out that, look, this is bad science, and it's harmful.

J: Definitely.

S: I mean, you know... in my opinion, this magazine is a complete rag, exploiting alternative medicine propaganda nonsense. It's exploiting people's worst fears, urban legends, wishful thinking, in order to peddle dangerous misinformation and promote quackery. There's no way to say that without courting libel. Of course they're going to bristle at that, they're not going to take that sitting down. But it highlights the fact that we need to be free to be able to criticize abject nonsense as abject nonsense, especially if it's dangerous misinformation, without being harassed by lawsuits, and that was the whole point of the libel reform in the UK. You basically couldn't do your job in the UK, or, you know, anywhere, producing information that was even looked at in the UK, with the existing libel laws. The charlatans and the quacks and the frauds and con artists could defend themselves by just launching harassing lawsuits at honest, even academic whistleblowers, people just trying to give information to the public about how dangerous certain nonsense was. So this is just another perfect example, and of course we have to mention the Streisand effect of threatening Simon Singh with libel; you're just basically begging to be publicly flogged and criticized on a hundred websites and podcasts and blogs.

J: Yeah, weren't they also saying, Rebecca, that this is a freedom-of-speech issue?

R: Yeah, whenever something like this comes up, there are always cries of censorship, and so, yeah, that's her arguments; that these are bullies that are trying to unfairly censor us, and it doesn't mean that freedom of speech has no limitations, it certainly does. You're saying things that are actively harmful that are going to get people killed, that incite violence, these things do not fall under freedom of speech. And also freedom of speech doesn't force a bookstore to carry your magazine.

S: And think about the ridiculous irony of making a free speech issue when you're threatening to sue somebody into silence; you're trying to chill public discourse with the threat of libel.

R: Another reason why I think that she won't actually move forward with any kind of lawsuit, because she deleted her Facebook status that mentioned libel because she desperately does not want people to think that she is, in fact, the person who wants to censor others.

S: Right, 'cause then suddenly you're the bully when you start throwing that around. All right, well, we'll follow this story if it develops into anything.

Presidential Lie Detector (36:36)[edit]

S: Evan, now turning to American politics, you're going to tell us about a company using the recent presidential debate for propaganda purposes to promote its shoddy technology.

E: That's right, Steve, and so we're going to tread somewhere where we don't often tread on the SGU: we're going to step into politics and the US presidential election. Last week, October 3rd, it was reported by the political website The Daily Caller that there was going to be... lie detectors incorporated into the first presidential debate which took place later that same evening. And the headline from the article read as such: "Obama and Romney to face real lie detector test during debate". So, I was immediately struck by the phrase "real lie detector test", right? Which, to me, could mean two different things. They're acknowledging that there are lie detectors that are real and some that are not real, and they've deemed that this one that's going to be used to be the authentic one. Or maybe they're simply perpetuating the widely accepted myth that lie detectors of any kind are legitimate, and therefore the "real" is some emphasis on the seriousness of such a tool being used to help gauge the candidates. Ooh! Well, reading on anyways, from the article: "a spokesman for the group Americans for Limited Government had told The Daily Caller that they contracted with a company to use a new truth-detecting technology to determine whether either candidate would be lying during the course of the debate." And here's the quote from the president of that political organization, here's what he said: "For the first time, within a few hours of a political debate, the American people will know if the candidates are telling the truth, and better be able to judge what promises are real, which ones are nothing more than political pandering". Sounds good, right? Almost too good to be true! Yeah, so I'm reading this and I said, okay, so they mentioned using a company, and I wondered which one they decided to incorporate, and surely the candidates weren't going to be hooked up to these traditional polygraphs, right? No, the article goes on to report that it's using a company called Voice Analysis Technology, and again they promised results within three hours of the conclusion of the debate. So a quick search reveals that the folks at VAT utilize a technology called—so this is the company, and they utilize a specific technology called Layered Voice Analysis. And I thought to myself, "Layered Voice Analysis, wow, that sounds really familiar, where have I heard that before?" And then, I suddenly remembered that, yeah...


E: I blogged about this![2]

S: Yeah!

E: I blogged about this last year!

S: Yeah, a year ago.

E: "LVA relies on the measurement of 'brain activity traces' using the voice as a medium". And, according to the folks at the company, called Nemesysco, and they are the manufacturers of the...

R: Nemesysco!?

E: Nemesysco.

R: That seriously sounds like a villain, like a supervillain's front-group.

E: Sounded like a breakfast cereal to me at first, but... The folks at Nemesysco claim that the traces can be expressed in terms of "stress, excitement, deception, and varying emotional states"; that's directly from their website. LVA has also been roundly criticized by scientists and skeptics as being effectively useless, much the same as has gone the way of the polygraph. And when properly tested, these devices and the people behind these devices, who actually have to control them and do the readings, they perform at chance level.

S: Right.

E: No better than chance. One website called Neuroskeptic—I don't know if our listeners are familiar with the folks at Neuroskeptic, or the writer of Neuroskeptic blog. He pointed out way back in 2009, here's his quote: "Given such results, and the absence of scientific support for the underlying principles, it is justified to view the use of these machines as charlatanry, and we argue that there are serious ethical and security reasons to demand that responsible authorities and institutions should not get involved in such practices."[3]

J: Wow!

S: Yeah, it's just another polygraph. I did see one study that showed that it can be effective in essentially tricking people who are being interrogated into thinking that it works, because it's all sciency, and then they confess because they think that the computer is going to be able to tell if they're lying or not. But that's true of polygraph too, it's a way of—a technique—

B: Of intimidation.

E: Invoking a reaction!

S: —Of intimidating or tricking people into confessing because they think that the polygraph works. But that's not the same thing as it actually working, which it doesn't. They also criticize the research that shows that it doesn't work, but they haven't been able to produce research themselves that shows that it does.

R: Well, so, for the debate, there were several actual lies said during the debate, that were obvious and pointed out the next day. Do they show that they picked up on those lies?

E: Well, they did; they published the results of the test. Well, actually the website did, remember, it's Americans for Limited Government; they were the ones who sponsored this, effectively, and they put out a statement the next day, about the results. Ready? "The lie detector voice analysis tests of the presidential debate were found to be inconclusive by voice analysis technology."

J: Wow!

E: "The technology can detect a deception if the person knows they are deceiving, but if they believe what they are saying is true, even if it's not, it's not picked up, and we're engaging in further reviews of these reports."

R: Are you kidding!?

E: I kid you not! (laughs)

J: Well, so they say—

E: Inconclusive!

J: So that statement basically says that neither of them knew they were lying.

E: Right, because it—

R: I think it says that their thing is completely useless. (laughs) That's what it says.

E: (laughs) That's what I got out of it.

R: Kudos to them for not lying, I guess, cause I feel like they could've easily been like, "we caught this lie and this lie and this one", and then just copied and pasted what all the blogs already wrote, you know? But, kudos to them for admitting that they're useless, I guess.

S: But I would think politics is the exact worst situation for this kind of technology, because politicians might have a little bit of experience saying things that are not exactly true and coming off as sincere, right? This is sort of a self-selective process; a survival of the best liar if you will, and now you're talking about a presidential debate? You're talking about... the best possible—

R: The absolute best liars!

S: (laughs) The pinnacle of the whole political process.

J: The two best liars in the country at the time.

S: (laughs) So, I don't know. Maybe not a fair test, but again, I think that they just were using the—exploiting the debate for headlines.

E: How do we know the candidates are lying?

S: Their lips are moving.

R: Their mouths are moving.

B: (laughs)

E: Exactly! Exactly!

Quickie with Bob: Falcon 9 launch (43:23)[edit]

R: I want a quickie with Bob!


B: Why, thank you, Rebecca, I promise you won't regret it. Hello, this is your quickie with Bob. Today I'm going to discuss quickly the historic Falcon 9 launch that occurred Sunday, October 7th. This is a historic flight because the initial test flights have been completed; they're all done, making this latest launch the first really, really official mission for a commercial spacecraft, which is really cool. SpaceX is under a 1.6 billion American dollar contract with NASA to fly twelve missions to the ISS, the International Space Station, through 2016. If you watch the launch live, everything seemed fine, or "nominal", as they put it, but overnight, SpaceX released a statement about an "engine anomaly". They said, and I quote, "Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night's launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first-stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket's nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost power suddenly, and an engine shutdown command was issued."[4] Now some have speculated that an explosion occurred, and it sure seems that way if you look at the video; there's a flare-up in the exhaust, and you could see debris flying off of it. Now SpaceX claims that the debris were the panels that the shutdown command jettisoned. This is usually done to relieve pressure from the engine bay to safeguard the eight other engines. Even though this anomaly was unplanned and embarassing, and a little bit scary, it was actually a cool demonstration of Falcon's engine-out capability. Once the engine was shut down, the flight computer (I think its name is HAL) recalculated in real time a new trajectory for the rocket, which is pretty awesome, and then it fired the remaining eight engines longer than it normally would have to compensate for Engine 1, which was cut out of the loop. And because of this, there was no effect on Dragon, which is the capsule on top of the Falcon engines, and there was also no effect on the resupply mission to the ISS, which is really, really good. That's all I got. Thank you, this has been your quickie with Bob; I hope it was good for you too!

S: Okay -

R: Hey, Bob, sorry, I was taking—I was taking a call just now, umm...

B: (laughs)

Who's That Noisy? (45:39)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Magnetosphere

S: Well, Evan! It's time for Who's That Noisy!

E: All right! Let's play for you, for those of you that have forgotten last week's Who's That Noisy, here we go...

(cricket-y sounding noises)

J: I'm telling you, that's the War of the Worlds noise, right in there; that is so cool! You know, it's that cricket-y sounding... there's peepers and there's cricket-y sounding noises in there, it's the cricket-y sounding noises, that's right out of the movie.

R: (sarcasm) These are all scientific terms.

E: Did you know that surrounding our planet are rings of plasma?

S: Oh yeah!

E: Part of the Earth's magnetosphere, that are pulsing with radio waves?

B: (amazed) No!

E: Did you know that—

B: That's where the sound came from? Awesome!

E: Those waves are not audible to the human ear alone, but to radio antenna, they pick them up nicely.

S: Just like all radio waves.

E: Exactly. And not just any tool did this, it was the Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science, also known as EMFISIS, which is aboard NASA's recently launched Radiation Belt Storm Probes. And it has picked up those waves and, well, turned it into pleasant sounds for us, that sound like, well, to Jay, War of the Worlds sounds, and to other people, lots of different things. Cause there were lots of different guesses as to what this was.

S: Cool.

J: The first noises definitely sounded like peepers though.

E: Yeah.

S: Peepers?

J: Yeah, like the frogs.

E: Chorus of birds chirping, perhaps, in the early morning? And the first person to guess correctly, from our very own forums, BigMik!

S: Are people guessing on other forums?

E: Well, no, but...

S: Okay.

J: (laughs)

E: I was just saying, in case—people might think...

S: Yeah.

E: There may be more than one forum. And that was BigMik's second post, so—and here's what he said. He said: "Wow, this is the first time I've listened to a podcast so soon on after putting it on, and I knew the noisy, and I was mowing the lawn, which is my podcast time, and I started listening to it, and I ran upstairs to post so fast that my wife thought I'd stuck my hands in the blades."[5] [sic]

S: (laughs)

E: (laughs) That's cool. That's devotion. So BigMik, you are this week's winner, well done!

S: Good job, BigMik!

J: Thanks, BigMik!

E: So, guess what, I have a fresh one this week.

S: That's good.

E: It's a good one, Steve!

S: It's not a stale one?

E: No. This one's for you, Steve!

S: All right, Ev!

Woman's voice: We just give a dose, a large dose, of green black walnut hull.

Man's voice: And what does that do?

Woman's voice: That kills the stages, larval stages of the Fasciolopsis parasite called the intestinal fluke.

S: Good one, Ev!

E: Yeah, it's a good one. It's a good one. Okay, there she is.

S: So it's the woman you want us to identify, not the guy who spoke.

E: Yeah, who cares about the guy; it's the woman who's mouthing the claptrap at us, so... give it your best guess, please: is our email, and is our forums. And I look forward to reading your guesses. Good luck everyone!

S: All right, thanks, Evan!

Questions and Emails[edit]

Proof of Heaven (48:59)[edit]

S: One email this week. This one comes from Tessa French from Sydney, Australia; one of our favorite cities in the world. And Tessa writes:

I discovered your podcast a few months ago and I'm currently working through the back catalog so I don't know if you've discussed this recently or not. Here's a link to a story about a neuroscientist who spent time in a coma and claims "As far as I know no one before me has ever travelled to this dimension while their cortex was completely shut down and while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma." I am completely skeptical of his claims, but I'm no scientist, so I wondered about Dr. Novella's opinion on what the brain might do if the cortex is shut down, and how this could possibly be explained. I also just wanted to thank you all so much for the work that you do, yada yada.

S: All right, well thank you, Tessa, for writing in.

R: Wait, is that what she wrote, "yada yada"?

S: Yeah, she did, yeah.

E: Thank you, yada yada.

R: I was just making sure you weren't being rude and—

S: No no, I yada-yadaed her whole paragraph where she thanks us but you can read that in the show notes. So, this was the most emailed story to us this week; the neurosurgeon who wrote an article for Newsweek promoted as "Proof of Heaven". Proof, guys! Proof!

E: Well, how? What, they get a T-shirt and bring it back?

S: This guy's subjective hallucinations are proof!

R: This is the best proof since that little boy wrote that whole book on meeting Jesus in heaven.

S: Yeah... (laughs)

J: So, Steve, I guess what you're implying here is that his cerebral cortex was not shut down.

S: No, so let's... his premise is massively flawed. He says that—what happened to this guy, you know—it was a young, healthy neurosurgeon, not someone extremely old, but he got bacterial meningitis. Within hours of getting a headache, was in the hospital and slipping into a coma, and eventually was in a deep coma. Cortex being shut down is a little... hyperbole, but let's say he had cortical activity consistent with a really deep coma, but not brain death, right, which is probably the case, meaning there was minimal electrical activity on EEG; certainly too little to generate any experiences or memories, probably. Let's say we buy that. He didn't go into that state directly; meaning, he didn't go from being awake to being in that state, and he certainly didn't go from that state to being awake. It's not like you just pop out of a coma. He must have passed through lighter stages of coma, or stages of brain activity where his brain was recovering; it was functioning, but he still was hallucinating, dreaming, delirious, not awake or certainly not fully conscious. Plenty of time to form lots of dream-like experiences. And he would have absolutely no sense of time. People who come out of a coma have no sense of how long they were in a coma, when their memories formed, just none whatsoever. He has no way of knowing that the memories that he has of this dream-like experience occurred while his brain had minimal cortical activity. It certainly could've happened while he was in a stage where he would have been delirious—forming experiences and memories but dream-like hallucinations. Also, his description of his experiences—get this, tell me what you think about this—he recounts being in the sky on fluffy white and pink clouds with winged angelic creatures flying by.

R: Seriously?

E: Wow!

S: Seriously!

R: Exactly like that little boy's description of heaven!

S: I mean, really?

E: Superimposing his own beliefs, so...

S: (sarcasm) Shocking! Shocking vision of heaven. Not culturally embedded in his Christian belief at all!

E: Oh no, no, not at all!

S: Yeah, his pre-existing beliefs. So, this is what happens when you hallucinate: you fill in the gaps with your own belief system and your own mythology. So, not surprising at all. And he marvels at how—tell me if this experience sounds familiar to you: he was with another creature, a female, beautiful, very European, light-colored female, who communicated to him without speaking, so he just knew what she wanted to convey to him, right? So the experience—

R: Was it sex?

S: —was extremely vivid, and—

R: Was he in Muslim heaven?

S: He just—no he wasn't in Muslim heaven.

E: 72 virgins.

S: No 72 virgins, but—right, so it's very dream-like.

J: Yeah, I was going to say that.

S: You know how dreams—you just know certain things with absolute certainty in your dream, and there could be an absolutely certain vividness to the dream; more real than real in certain ways, because your reality-testing apparatus is not fully engaged, etc. You're experiencing with a subset of your cortex, not a fully functional cortex; it's an altered state, by definition. So it has all the hallmarks of a dream-like experience. What's shocking is that this guy's a neurosurgeon.

E: Yeah.

S: And now he's promoting this incredibly naive thing. Well, we have a quick interview coming up I want to leave time for, so let's go to that now.

Interview with Robert Hutton (54:23)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Rob Hutton, who is the head of the SGU transcription project. Rob, we thank you for all the hard work that you're doing and you're here to tell us about your effort to transcribe all of the SGU and that you need help, not surprisingly.

RH: Yeah.

J: Heh.

RH: That's right I mean it's a pretty gargantuan effort, you guys've been pretty prolific over the years.

R: Sorry about that.

E: Yeah, right?

B: Ha ha.

RH: How inconsiderate.

B: I tried to make 'em stop but they won't listen to me.

S: So tell us about it.

RH: Well, you know, I was—got addicted to the SGU, as a lot of people seem to do, and I was sort of wondering what I could do to help, as it's kind of changed the way I thought about the world, so... I wanted to give something back, and being a systems administrator, I work with computers every day, and I just thought some transcripts would be really good, so I decided to set up a wiki page and it's kinda taken off, actually.

J: So what's been happening? You say "taken off", what do you mean?

RH: Well, we've got 35 of the 377 SGU episodes done and 21 of the 5x5 episodes. And we've had, you know, a couple of really dedicated contributors; we've had Mike C and Cat Grafton who've—I mean Cat's had her brother, who's an amazing artist, doing all sorts of icons and and things for the site so it's really starting to look good and really starting to come together. Yeah, we're starting to get some search hits and I think it's turning into something that'd be quite useful, but it'd be great if we could have more people chipping in making it a bigger resource.

R: And are you able to do a transcript in less than a week, so like, are you keeping up at this point?

RH: We were keeping up initially I think we're sort of falling behind a little bit, so you know any help we could have would be great. What we're doing at the moment is as soon as an episode comes out we put the skeleton of the episode on the site and we break it up into pieces, so we put timestamps in each piece and then we encourage people to just take one chunk and do one chunk.

J: So Rob, what could someone listening to the show do to help?

RH: There's a lot of things. Just coming on the site and having a look at the help text we put together on how to do a transcription is a good start. It's quite easy; you just download an audio player and play back the audio at a slower rate so you can type it out at that speed, then you just copy-paste the text you transcribed into the wiki software. It's quite easy to do and learn. But even something like proof-reading which, you know, once somebody does a transcript if you can proofread it, you can do that almost at full speed, doesn't take a lot of time. But each thing needs to be proofread, 'cause it's impossible to get it perfect the first time.

J: How do you make it so that people don't do the same episode?

RH: When you're starting to transcribe something, there's a little template you can copy-paste. It's just one word surrounded by squiggly brackets ["braces", as in: {{Transcribing}} ], and that puts a little marker into the page saying "I'm working on this section; nobody else work on it".

J: Oh ok.

B: Rob, I need to ask: which voices are the hardest to distinguish; it's Evan and Rebecca, isn't it?


RH: Yeah that's right.

E: We sound so much alike.

B: I knew it.

RH: No, Jay and Bob are the hardest to tell apart; I've never actually personally had a problem telling you guys apart. But a lot of people complain about Jay and Bob sounding the same.

E: I do too.

J: Jay, that's funny, isn't it?

B: It sure is, Bob, you putz.


J: Try to transcribe that!

B: (laughs)

J: I like the idea, though, of being able to... first turning the episode into text is great, 'cause people can search for something if they heard something on this show or they don't remember which show it was on...

RH: Even accessibility as well; there's a whole community of people out there that I sure are hard of hearing or whatever, and that adds them in. But even&ndash absolutely; being able to link to something you heard on the SGU; to be able to send just that section to a person that's particularly interested in that, I think would be really powerful. And even to back up arguments you've been having at the pub.

J: (laughs)

S: This is definitely a wiki crowd-sourcing kinda project —a bunch of people doing a little bit rather than a few people killing themselves over it, so... I like the way you break it up so people can can come in, very easily contribute as little or as much as they want, and the whole project will take shape from there.

J: Yeah, Rob, say somebody wants to just do a Science or Fiction, or whatever. Is that OK; is it too small?

RH: No, that's great, anything that they can do is perfect and really helps. We've even got some fun sections in there. We've got a section for people's favorite quotes from you guys —from the Rogues.

B: Oh cool.

RH: There's not a lot up there yet, but I'm sure that a lot of people will add some doozies in there soon.

J: Rob, where should people go, what's the address, how would you like them to contact you, or what's the process?

RH: So if they just go to, the wiki's right there, they can sign up. Unfortunately, we've made it registration only at the moment, because we've had a lot of spam accounts being set up. But that just sends us an email and we tick off the account, and once they've got their account they can contribute as much as they want. If there's any problems with that they can contact us at

J: And when people do the transcripts, do their names get added to a list of contributors?

RH: Yeah, the wiki software provides that all automatically, so you can even see who the top contributors are and so forth. There's a list of that under special pages.

J: Yeah, why don't we set up the first goal: the first person to join the site to do five episodes on their own —and you confirm it, Rob —we'll give them any t-shirt they want.

RH: All right.

S: Any SGU t-shirt, I assume.

J: Any SGU t-shirt, yeah (laughs)

E: Should be qualified, yes...

J: I want the t-shirt Brad Pitt was wearing.

B: Yeah.

E: You said "any".

J: Yeah, do that, and Rob, let us know when it happens and then we'll set up another milestone.

S: All right, Rob thanks for all of your work—took a little initiative, found a way to contribute to the overall skeptical effort. Really appreciate it.

R: Yeah, thanks so much

RH: Thanks to you guys for the podcast, it's been great.

J: Thanks, Rob.

Science or Fiction (1:00:36)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Is everyone ready for this week?

J: Yes!

R: Yep!

E: Mm-hm.

S: Okay. Here we go. Item number one: A newly published paper claims to have found the true solution to the Pioneer anomaly (the tiny excessive deceleration of the Pioneer probe) in the laws of physics. Item number two: Chemists have developed a pencil that can draw functional sensors on a piece of paper. Item number three: Researchers have developed a method of producing black silicon, which can be used to make semiconductor processors several thousand times faster than silicon-based processors. Evan, go first!

E: The first one. So this is a newly published paper claiming to have found the true solution to the Pioneer anomaly. We talked about it at the time (see episode 299) and I thought at the time they—there was a paper claiming to have found that solution. This had to be five years ago. If I recall, it was... more of a theory, rather than a conclusion. Chemists—The second one, chemists developing a pencil that can draw functional sensors... on a piece of paper? For what purpose? I have to try to figure out what the purpose is for that. The last one, about a method of producing black silicon—I've never heard of that before. Let's go back to the first one, the Pioneer anomaly. Yeah, that one's pretty straightforward; I mean, they either did or they didn't; I don't know what the twist would be on here, unless it's something similar to what we talked about before in which they haven't found the true solution. Well... I guess I'll go with my instincts, saying that the Pioneer anomaly one—I don't know that they found the true solution, Steve; another hypothesis is apparently—maybe come along, that's going to be worked over. Can't call it the true solution yet, so I'll say that one's the fiction.

S: Okay. Jay?

J: Okay, the first one about the Pioneer anomaly. I see no reason why I should doubt that somebody published a paper claiming that they found the true solution, or the real solution, or an accurate solution of the Pioneer anomaly. So I'm not going to have that one on the list. Second one is the one about the chemists developing a pencil that can draw the functional sensor on a piece of paper. I absolutely believe in this one, I mean why not? Maybe whatever the material is, they were able to make it so that you can, in essence, draw with a material that can sustain an electrical charge or whatever, absolutely. And the last one, researchers have developed a method for producing a black silicon—I'm going to pick that one as the fake.

S: Any particular reason?

J: Cause I think the other two are true, and this one I just don't know.

E: Oh, good reason, Jay!

R: (laughs)

E: Well done.

S: All right, Rebecca.

R: Okay, well... that didn't help, because I was waffling between the Pioneer anomaly and the black silicon. The pencil that can draw functional sensors... that makes sense to me. As I have previously stated many times on this show, I have no idea how carbon nanotubes work, but I believe that they could do that, that they are conductive, and that carbon is what we normally put in mechanical pencils, and I bet you could put carbon nanotubes in pencils. Why not? Evan has a good point, I feel like we already talked about the Pioneer anomaly, and how that was all solved, so I don't know, maybe this new paper is saying that that solution was... wrong? And now there's another new solution... But, regardless, that one's really suspicious for that reason. And black silicon? I have no idea. What's black silicon? I don't know.

J: Exactly, that's why I picked that one as the fake.

E: That's what I said.

R: And developing a method of producing it—this magical material I've never heard of—is not the same as actually developing it, and so this could be one of those many things where we're like, "oh it's five years away!" Okay, I'm going to say that that one's—I'm going to say the silicon is science, I'm going to go with Evan, I'm going to say that the Pioneer anomaly one is fiction.

E: Thanks, Rebecca.

R: No problem.

E: All right.

S: Aaaaand Bob.

B: Yeah, I read weeks ago that they came up with an idea to explain the anomaly. But since Steve only takes recent stuff, I have to assume that's not what you're talking about here. The idea with that theory was that the way heat dissipates away from the Pioneer probe affected the... movement of the probe itself, which could probably explain some of it, I suspect. If that's true, it's probably just a minor change in that they found some other way to explain it in the laws of physics as it says right here, so... That'd be great, I'm kind of surprised that they were—that they'd be able to find some loophole in the laws of physics that would explain it. I don't know how they could've missed it, cause they really vetted the hell out of this for so many years. But that could do it. Some subtle aspect of physics that could explain it; I'm not sure what it would be. But yeah, I could see that; that'd be great to finally have the solution to that, I hope it's true. Functional sensors on a piece of paper... Yeah, I could see this, Rebecca hit on the carbon nanotubes, I mean... yeah, you could somehow make that into the pencil lead and I assume they would kind of self-organize to a certain extent in order to make structures that would act as functional sensors; I'm not sure what the power source would be though... Perhaps they'd just react to certain signals or chemicals to have a sensor effect without having any real battery or anything like that. I guess that's possible; it'd be pretty cool to do that. Black silicon... I've never heard of that. I'm not sure what it could be except perhaps some new way to dope silicon to make it a super-semiconductor. But the several thousand times faster's kind of got me. That just seems... orders of magnitude faster than silicon processors? That's huge and I, unfortunately, will have to resort to the idea that, shit, I would've heard of that, if that was the case; it's hard for me to miss that stuff for long, unless it just came out just before the show. Even if it came out a half hour ago, I still might have seen it. That one's got me a bit, that—I hope that's true. Several thousand times faster would be fantastic. But it's just a little bit too much, I think maybe you should've done a hundred times faster, Steve, instead of several thousand. So I'm going to say that one's fiction.

S: Okay. So you all agree that "chemists have developed a pencil that can draw functional sensors on a piece of paper" is science. You all think that one's true, and that one is... science!

R: Hooray!

E: Yeah...

B: Change the world!

R: I read one!

B: (laughs)

S: You read that one?

R: Obviously, Steve! I don't know shit about carbon nanotubes!

J: Yeah, she threw out carbon nanotubes!

R: (laughs) Yeah, you think I pulled that out of my ass?

S: Yeah, you were totally on the nose with that one. So yeah... you replace the lead of a mechanical pencil with compressed carbon—powdered carbon nanotubes, so that when you draw with the pencil you're leaving a trail of these carbon nanotubes, and you can draw, essentially, a sensor, or a circuit onto a piece of paper. In one part of the article about it, it says you can draw on any paper surface—any piece of paper... but then in another part of the article they say that they drew it on paper that was embedded with gold as a conductor.

B: (laughs)

S: So it's a little bit different...

J: (laughs) Gold paper! You need gold paper to do this!

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah, right? That's what I'm thinking!

R: Everyone's got gold paper, come on!

S: Imprinted with small electrodes made of gold. But here, the carbon nanotubes, Rebecca, in this application, serve as a resistor, not a conductor.

R: Oh, right. See, I told you I didn't know.

S: At least according to this description. And, Evan, the purpose of this is to—the sensors are to detect gases.

J: Gases!

S: Yes, gases. And this particular sensor, that they designed can detect ammonia gas, which is an industrial hazard; so that would be very useful, if you could cheaply produce lots of ammonia gas sensors. But they say that the same concept could be used to detect lots of different kinds of harmful gases. So, we'll see if it develops into an actual, useful technology, but it was an interesting idea, a simple pencil could spread carbon nanotubes around. But this is not that different than using, like, inkjet printers to print circuits or whatever, so the whole notion of printing electronics is already out there. Okay, let's go on to number one: "A newly published paper claims to have found the true solution to the Pioneer anomaly, the tiny excessive deceleration of the Pioneer probe, in the laws of physics". Evan and Rebecca, you think this one is the fiction, Jay and Bob think this one is science, and this one is... science!

R: Baaaah!

S: We have talked about the Pioneer anomaly previously, and the fact that it—

B: It was an anomaly, I don't think we actually—

S: No, we did talk about the fact that there was a solution to the anomaly. The anomaly is that we're very, very precisely tracking the path of the Pioneer probe as it's leaving the solar system, and it's slowing down because of the gravitational effect of the Sun. But it's slowing down a little bit more than it should. And so astronomers are looking for every possible reason to explain this small extra deceleration. Explanations fall into two basic categories: that there is something physically happening to the probe that we need to detect, or that there's some misunderstanding in the laws of physics, meaning our calculations are wrong. The explanation that we talked about, not too long ago on this show, was that they discovered a little bit of extra heat radiating from the probe, and that there's a little asymmetry in the radiation of the heat from the probe, and that that heat would actually act as a little thruster that would slow down the probe this tiny little amount. What I don't remember from our previous discussion is that this effect would only explain 15 to 20% of the observed deceleration of the anomaly. It doesn't explain the whole thing, 80 to 85% of it is still unexplained. Well, now, physicist Sergei Kopeikin, professor of physics and astronomy at MU's College of Arts and Science, said that his study explains the other 80 to 85%. He thinks that you can explain the deceleration with—did you read the article, Bob?

B: Yes, I did!

S: Okay.

E: Cheat!

S: With... the expansion of the universe! Which has a differential effect on the movement of photons that make up light and radio waves. And therefore, if you account for the expansion of the universe's effect on the photons that we're using in order to detect the speed of this Pioneer probe, that explains the anomaly. He says that physicists often forget about this effect because it's not present in everything that we observe or measure, if we're looking at the Earth or the Moon around the Earth, or these kind of things, this effect is not apparent, but it's a very tiny effect but it is apparent when you're using this technique to detect the speed of the Pioneer. And so, again, laws of physics explain the Pioneer anomaly, at least that remaining 85% chunk of it. What'd you think of this article, Bob, when you read it, you buy it?

B: Well, yeah, I mean, I trust this guy; I mean, he knows a lot more about this stuff than me. I was surprised.

E: That's for sure.

B: First off, I remember reading about the heat dissipation causing the deceleration.

S: Yeah.

B: Like I said, and I thought, okay, and my take was that that resolves the entire issue.

S: Yeah, that's what I thought, too.

B: They didn't mention the 20%. So I was kind of shocked that, oh, by the way, the heat thing is only 15 to 20%, and here's the 80 to 85%, I was like, well, that's cool, and if it's true, that's fantastic, but how—I don't know, how did you miss it? I mean, yeah, it's not obvious, but when you spend years and years and years looking at a problem, I would think they would've covered this angle. I mean, was there some sort of minimal redshift in the photons that they're looking at? It was cool, and I hope it's right.

S: All right, well all of this means that "Researchers have developed a method of producing black silicon which can be used to make semiconductors several thousand times faster than silicon-based processors" is... the fiction. Not entirely fiction, however.

E: Hah!

S: Researchers have...

B: (laughs) Small compensation.

E: I'll take that!

S: ...have worked with something called black silicon. What researchers are looking at is the use of black silicon in solar cells, not as semiconductors. And, yeah, I had to give it, Bob, come on—I had to give it enough of—a few orders of magnitude to make it clearly wrong, but anyway...

E: What!? Are you saying that we should've gotten that based on that alone?

S: No! No! It has to be—

B: Yes! Yes! That's what I'm saying!

E: Yes, that's exactly -

S: —plausible but extreme enough that you can have a reason to justify thinking that it's fiction.

B: I just thought it was a little too extreme.

S: So, Bob, do you know how to make black silicon?

B: Well, I said dope it with something that would make it darker, that's the only thing I can think of to make it black, besides spray-painting it...

S: Yeah, that's right. So you use a femtosecond laser pulse under sulphur-containing atmosphere, so the laser pulses incorporate sulphur into the silicon, and that turns it black.

B: Cool!

S: It has an interesting property, the black silicon; not a super-fast computer chip, but it does absorb in the infrared spectrum, and therefore if you incorporate it into a solar cell, traditional silicon-based solar cells do not absorb sunlight in the infrared spectrum, so they're missing that piece of the spectrum—

B: That's great!

S: —to generate electricity. So you can make solar cells more efficient. According to the article that I was reading about this research, the researchers say that the standard silicon-based solar cells are 17% efficient. I always see different numbers, I don't know—

B: I know, they're all over the board!

S: Yeah, so I don't know how to compare the two, but... internally, using that as the metric—so they said standard silicon is 70% efficient—

B: Seventeen.

S: 17%. This would make it one more percent. This would get you to 18%.

B: Aww, geez. That's all?

S: So, you know... But, you think about all these different methods we read about with solar cells. We have this, and you get a percent here, percent there, and you could make it a little bit cheaper here, more durable there, you get these incremental advances, and I think cells are getting better. Hopefully we'll get into 20 to 30 to 40% efficiency range with solar cells we can mass-produce, or, paint onto cars or houses or whatever, then we're talking.

B: Yeah.

S: Not there yet, but, this is one more step...

B: But we're not that far away, Steve.

S: Yeah, I agree.

B: We're not that far away, and... especially with gas prices the way they are, I think people are going to be even more seriously looking at this stuff. As serious as they are now, when gas starts getting over five and over six dollars, in some places.

S: In football, we call that backing into winning, backing into the post-season, when you get into the post-season not because you won but because some other team lost. So solar energy being cost-effective because gas prices are going up is backing into cost-effectiveness for solar energy. We'd like to see it actually make technological advances and get there on its own. But it is—it's making incremental advances—it's getting there slowly, and again it's not going to be cost-effective for everywhere all at once. Probably already is cost-effective if you live in Arizona, or some place like that. Northeast of the United States, maybe not so much.

E: Not so much.

S: Yeah.

B: I say we cut out the middleman and just start building a Dyson swarm.

E: Yeah, a Dyson swarm's the way to go.

B: Let's do it!

S: You do that.

E: Come on, let's harness the power of the sun.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:09)[edit]

S: All right, well Jay, are you going to finish us up with a quote?

J: I have a quote sent in by a listener named Ashley Pratt. This is a quote by Nikola Tesla. Does anybody know who Nikola Tesla is?

S: No, never heard of the guy!

R: Yeah, I might have...

B: He invented the nickel.

E: The lead singer for the band Tesla.

J: (laughs)

S: He developed that car, the electric car.

R: I think he's the lead singer for Nickelback.

J: He was a Serbian American inventor, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, a physicist and a futurist, and he also invented alternating current.

E: Oh, that Tesla!

R: Oh.

J: He said, or wrote:

The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter—for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way. He lives and labors and hopes.

J: (muffled) Nikola Tesla!

S: OK.

R: It'll have to do.

E: What did you say, you nicked your testicles?

Announcements (1:18:12)[edit]

R: Steve, I want to get in one more plug for the paranormal road trip, Me, Richard Wiseman, Jon Ronson on the road. We're going to be stopping in Cleveland on October 20th, Columbus the 21st, Cincinnati the 22nd, Louisville, Kentucky the 23rd, and then we're going to be at CSICon the 25th, and we'll see all of you guys there.

S: And if you are going to be at CSICon, you have to sign up for the SGU dinner on Saturday night, it's going to be a lot of fun; you'll get to spend a lot of time with all of the rogues, and after the SGU dinner on Saturday night, we're going to do a private recording of the SGU and you can join us. You can buy your tickets on And thanks for joining me this week everyone.

B: Surely.

R: Thank you, Steve.

J: Thank you, Steve.

S: And 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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