SGU Episode 388

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SGU Episode 388
22nd December 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 387                      SGU 389

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves.

David Hume

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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 Monday, December 17, 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: and Evan Bernstein.

E: So this is what the afterlife is like. Looks a lot like real life.

B: Oh, yeah, that's right. (he laughs)

E: December 22nd!

B: I forgot I was dead. Cool.

S: Yeah, right.

E: When you're listening to this.

R: Well, yeah, I mean, but we don't know, because we are recording this beforehand, so who knows?

E: I am therefore putting down my chit right now, placing my bet. Here we are. December 22nd.

B: I'm gonna hedge my bets. To the aliens that find this as they examine the dead husk of the Earth: Wha'sup? Send more Chuck Berry! (Laughter)

S: Jay is in the process of moving, so he's not available tonight.

R: So sad. I mean, happy for him, but sad for humanity that we have to go without. (Laughter)

E: How will we manage?

S: For one week.

This Day in Skepticism (1:05)[edit]

R: Hey, happy Coelacanth Day, everybody!

B: Yay!

S: Happy Coelacanth Day, Rebecca.

E: Coelacanth Day.

B: I love coelacanths!

R: On this date in 1938, the coelacanth was rediscovered. It was a primitive fish that was thought to be extinct, and it was discovered by a trawler. Well, I should say, it had probably been seen quite often by people near this South African town where it was eventually quote unquote found. But it was re-found by somebody who knew exactly what they were looking at.

S: Right.

R: In 1938. Quite remarkably, in a trash pile of fish.

E: Jeez.

R: So what happened was, Hendrick Goosen was the captain of a trawler, who would occasionally call upon a local museum curator named Majorie Courtenay-Latimer, at a nearby museum, whenever he found a fish or anything that he thought was kind of weird, because she would be able to identify it and appreciate it. So he called her over to see his catch, but the actual specimen that he wanted to show her apparently wasn't very interesting. But she did look over into his trash pile, and spot the coelacanth, which is, it's not hard to see, when you see the coelacanth, it's not hard to see why the average person would probably not think much of it. It's sort of ugly. It's a dumb-looking fish. There.

S: It's a fish.

R: There's just nothing really interesting about it.

B: It definitely looks odd, though.

E: It's got a big dorsal section.

R: Yeah, I guess so, but it just sort of looks like a fish. Just a fish. But, it turns out that this fish was quite famous because it had been thought extinct, up until that point. So now there are two species, I guess, two species of

S: Yeah, two species.

R: of coelacanth. Both of which are threatened. The West Indian Ocean is critically endangered, still. But, it's kinda cool because it's a living fossil, as they say. It's like dinofish. Because it evolved into its current form about four hundred million years ago.

S: Yeah, but to be clear, 'cause you know how creationists love to play with that "living fossil, evolution is not true."

E: Oh, yeah.

S: This is not the same species that was alive that long ago. This is part of the same family, that family has existed, with little change. But still, this species has not been around for that long. The two species that are around today.

B: But, Steve, it says that it's evolved, I'll quote Wikipedia, "evolved into roughly its current form four hundred million years ago." So it hasn't changed much for four hundred million years.

S: Yeah, but they're talking about the family. Not the species.

R: It's an order. It's an order, not

S: Oh, is it an order?

R: Yeah.

S: Oh, good, cool. Did you know that it has eight fins? Two dorsal, two pectoral, two pelvic, one caudal and one anal.

B: Caudal, ooooh. Oooooh, nice.

R: Anal!

S: It's an anal fin.

R: I can see how that could be handy.

B: So I'm not the only one.

R: Ew.

E: Multi-purpose back there?

B: That is the oddest thing about it, though. It's really

R: About your anal fin?

B: No, not about that. There's more things than that. I'm talking about the coelacanth. It looks very odd with all these fins, sticking out everywhere. Did you know it's more closely related to reptiles than mammals, than to the common ray-finned fishes?

R: I didn't know that.

E: I didn't know that.

B: That's kind of striking.

S: Yeah, it's related to tetrapods and lungfish.

B: Lungfish.

S: It seems odd that that group of fish that are closely related to tetrapods, to vertebrates that walk out on land, are more closely related to creatures on land than they are to other fish, 'cause they're past that branch point that led to land-based vertebrates. You know?

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: Because everything else kept evolving, too. You know what I mean? It's just, a little bit, it's counterintuitive at first, but when you look at the branching tree then it makes perfect sense.

E: So this is kind of a fish out of time in a sense.

S: It's just a remarkably stable order. It's like sharks have been around for a long time. Not the exact same sharks we have today, but sharks as a group, they have been around for a long time, same thing.

R: But of course, Disney still retains the right to option fish out of time. (Laughter)

S: Fish out of time.

B: Oh my god. Hey, I didn't know this. The West Indian Ocean coelacanth is a critically endangered species. That kind of sucks. I mean, don't they live so deep. I mean, are they just getting, I guess they're getting . . .

E: That's amazing.

B: . . . picked up all the time. Or maybe their environment's changing, which I doubt. But that's pretty, that would stink if it lasted this long, and just said, "Ahhhh, I'm done."

E: Right? An order, a class for four hundred million years, and then, what? Humans come along and kind of mess things up in a few hundred years, and that's that. Assuming that that's why it's on the critically endangered species list. I don't know that for sure.

News Items[edit]

Sandy Hook Massacre (6:00)[edit]

Neurologica: Some Thoughts on Sandy Hook

S: So, we unfortunately have a very sad news story to talk about this evening, to start out our news items. Many of you have likely heard about the Sandy Hook massacre. To quickly summarize what we know as of the recording of this show, on Friday, December 14, a 20-year-old gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and went to the principal's office, shot the principal and I think there was one other person there, killed them both. And then proceeded to go to classrooms, shooting and killing teachers and students, before finally shooting and killing himself. In the end, he killed twenty children, all aged 6 to 7, and six adults, including his own mother, who he killed at his house before leaving for the school. Absolutely horrifically tragic. I mean, this has obviously been the talk around here all weekend, and it's just hard to wrap your head around something that horrific happening.

R: And we should mention that you guys are all in Connecticut right now. And in fact,

B: Yeah.

R: Well, Jay and Bob, I mean, you guys are like, right there.

B: Yeah, not just Connecticut. I mean this is bad enough if it happened three thousand miles away, but to have it happen literally two or three miles away, I mean, I could run there without much of a problem. So close, down the road, it's really just drives it home just a little bit deeper, and it's a bizarre feeling to know and think that something that horrific, that you've seen happen in the past before, Columbine and others. But to have it so close is really surreal and bizarre and one thing people, some people are confused about what's the relationship between Sandy Hook and Newtown. It's in Newtown. Sandy Hook is like a village that's in Newtown, so the town is Newtown. That's what it happened in . . .

S: And Evan, you have an even closer connection in a way to what happened.

E: Yeah, some friends whom I've been school, was schoolmates with, you know, growing up as a boy, and my junior high school years, and high school years. There's three families that now reside in Newtown I went to high school with all these good people, and they had children that were in the school, unfortunately, at the time that all this happened. None of them were victims in that sense that they died, so they are all alive. That is, you know, I was very relieved to hear that. One of my friends works for the Town of Newtown, and he's part of the fire, volunteer fire department as well. And part of the emergency response team there. So he actually was one of the very first people on the scene after the shooting.

R: Unnh, horrible.

E: Had occurred. And was sort of in charge of lots of different things going on at the time. His wife also happened to be at the school at the time of the shooting, as well. She was dropping something off to her son. Her son had forgotten to bring something to school. They have a son in third grade there. So she was at the school. She was approaching the front door and she noticed the glass was shot out. And she felt, sensed, yeah, something is wrong, and not a few seconds later she started to hear the gunshots. She ran for cover, managed to protect herself, but, you know, the thought of having your child inside there while you're outside taking cover is . . . unimaginable. I mean it's impossible to put yourself in a situation such as that. They're still in shock to a certain degree, over it all. You can't blame them for that.

S: Imagine actually being one of the families who lost somebody in the massacre. It's just unbelievable.

R: It's worth noting though, that there were some, I mean, as with all of these tragedies there are some amazing stories of particularly really courageous teachers and the principal who obviously stepped up and saved a lot of lives. There was one teacher who locked her entire class into a closet in the bathroom and protected them. And she ended up dying.

B: Well, actually, some of those stories are kind of, it's kind of up in the air how much of that specific story might be true. Yeah, there was definitely heroism and incredible acts of bravery, but that specific I read today, was, might not necessarily be exactly true as people are saying, but there are plenty of examples like that.

S: Yeah. The reporting of this story has been rife with misinformation all the way through. Every day it sounds like we're getting a different story.

R: Yeah. Which is usually the case.

S: Unfortunate. Yeah.

E: Right. In huge world events, this is a world event, no doubt about it.

R: And especially as a million different websites and mainstream news stations are rushing to be the first to break a story

S: Yeah, so they're going with any information they get. The cops are being very closed about the information. They don't want to really say anything until they've completed their investigation and they're sure about it. So, they're holding onto details and leaving the press to speculate. I think sometimes, you know, a little irresponsibly.

E: But they're also warning people to be careful of all the rumors that are flying out there. They're pretty vociferous about that. And really telling people "Do not believe everything you're seeing on the internet." A lot of it is false.

S: But you can't blame the public for curiosity. People struggle to make sense of something.

R: And particularly, when mainstream news reports things, you give them a certain amount of respect. Unfortunately. And if they don't do their fact checking, then it's pretty easy for rumors to spread from there.

B: Hey, guys. What's your take on this angle that I found a little bit intriguing? There was a quote attributed to Morgan Freeman on Facebook, which turned out to be false, he never said this. Somebody just posted it and it just took on a life of its own, was attributed to Morgan. But the basic gist is that the media, he was just, the person who wrote it was just horrified at the way the media was reporting this and similar disasters in that they basically, you know, they hold up this, the guy who perpetrated this act, focusing on him, his name, his image over and over and over and his point was that because you're turning this person into some sort of, not a hero, but just sort of this figure that will never be forgotten, the image and his name. He says it makes the next person want, maybe step a little closer to pulling off a similar or more dramatic act because he realizes, oh boy, I can be this infamous if I do something similar to this.

E: Copycat, copycat actions.

B: So, right. The suggestion was that maybe, at the very least, you could talk about it, everyone's curious, obviously, but do we really need to post this guy's picture and name over and over and over. Can we just do it without at least making him, you know, something that we focus so much, specifically his name and image. And not the victims. I mean, people can name the killers in Columbine, but can anyone name one victim, type of thing.

R: Morgan Freeman may not have said that, but Roger Ebert had a great quote right after Columbine. A reporter was fishing for a story, and trying to get him to say something along the lines of violent films like Basketball Diaries contributed to this. And Ebert's response was to say "Events like this, if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song. These two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country. If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory." And Ebert says that somehow that quote never ended up making it into an actual news story.

B: Yeah, right?

E: Um hmm.

R: Wasn't really what she was looking for.

B: Obviously, something like this happening is, it has many, many different causes. You can't say "this is why it happened." But this is one thing that I think can be addressed, and you know I got, I don't watch CNN that much, but I got new respect for CNN last night watching it, and, Anderson Cooper said "We haven't mentioned this guy's name for three days" and they make a point of not specifically addressing who it was or showing his image and they still talk about it plenty but they make an effort not to focus on the person and making him that other people might want to try and emulate. And I thought that was an interesting way to deal with it and one of the many things that can be done to try to minimize this from happening again, there's lots of different things that can be done and that's one thing that could be done that I think we should try, people should try, to do.

S: So one of the reasons why I wanted to talk about this news story was to cover that angle a little bit, the notion that when big events like this happen, there seems to be a feeding frenzy of speculation about what the cause is. And suggesting therefore there needs to be some remedy for this cause of that event. Around this latest shooting, the themes have been, the media is one, gun control or lack thereof being another, our lack of proper treatment of mental illness, and, for some reason, violent video games has been raised by multiple people as a contributor to this.

R: And there have been several commentators, unfortunately, who have suggested that because God is not allowed in schools this has happened. And not just the nuttiest of them, but people like Mike Huckabee.

E: Yeah, that's right. You're right, they did say that.

S: It's like everyone picks their favorite boogey man or cause and attaches it to this event.

E: Well, we like to think that there are simple answers to things that are very complex and I would say that this is an extremely complex issue. On all facets.

S: So I did a lot of reading, trying to see what literature there is out there that would even address some of these questions. The only real consensus I've found was that these kind of school shootings or even spree killings are too rare to do any kind of meaningful analysis of cause and effect. You know, there is more variables than there are data points, and so you just can't in any way do a meaningful analysis. So we just don't know. We just don't know what are, the important influences are, and what policies might reduce the risk of this happening in the future. Of course, nobody wants something like this to happen again. And attention will be paid to certain issues, but we have to just accept the fact that we're doing this without really knowing what the effect of these policies are in reducing the probability that this kind of thing will happen again.

E: It's good that we don't have enough data, if you think about it, right? I mean, if we had more data on this, a lot more people would be dead, so, I'm not disheartened by that.

S: Yeah, we just have to acknowledge that that's the case. Nobody has the answer. It's like these events are caused by this type of person in this situation or that trigger. We just don't, we can't make those statements.

B: Yeah, that level of competence is just not warranted.

R: It seems insufficient to me though, to say that, because there are tons of rare events that we can analyze and at least get some hypotheses about, like, do these happen more and more in certain, in one country more than other countries? You know, we can look at how the data matches up to, for instance, gun control laws, or mental health standards. Like, for instance, there have been studies that have looked at that. I was just reading about one, though, that showed that there didn't seem to be any connection between mental health standards and mass shootings like this. But there was a correlation with gun control laws. So I mean, that's by no means definitive, but it is a data point that we can add. So just because these things are rare doesn't mean we can't analyze them.

S: No, there is data, there absolutely is data looking at certain variables. But again, but not enough to really make the kind of statements we'd like to make about cause and effect. So then the data is kind of all over the place. For example, you bring up mental illness. There is a study which, a few studies actually, which looked at the, just the percentage of these kinds of major violent crimes that are perpetrated by people with mental illness and the figure is 15%. That's what they found. Fifteen percent of these kinds of crimes are committed by people with mental illness.

R: We should mention that at the time of this recording, there's no evidence one way or the other to say whether or not this person had a mental illness.

S: We know nothing about that, so, yeah, this is all generically speaking. However, if you look it at the other way, what's the risk of committing these crimes if you have any kind of mental illness and certain kinds, like paranoid schizophrenia or paranoid schizophrenia plus alcoholism, and the risk does go significantly higher. There are correlations there. Not necessarily, so now we're looking more at all violent crime, not these specific kinds of spree killings, so just to clarify further, Rebecca, thinking a lot of the statistics you're quoting have to do more with violent crimes.

R: Actually, yeah, you're probably right.

S: If you're looking at just these spree killings really are rare, like

R: Well, what counts as a spree killing, though, out of curiosity, because there have been, in the past week, there have been several in the news. I've read at least four happening. Not necessarily as quote unquote successful as this one. Like for instance, there was one in a hospital just a couple, two days ago, I think. Someone opened fire in a hospital. I guess it depends on what your definition is of spree killing.

E: I'm also curious as to how many of these otherwise sprees that were plotted out and going to take place were thwarted in some capacity. Either someone got a tip and they actually stopped the person before they were able to go through with it, or actually some people who have been on, started a spree have been, you know, taken down by other people who are carrying guns.

R: Yeah, that's what happened in the hospital. The person shot two people before a security guard, I think, shot the gunman.

S: Having armed security certainly seems like a good idea, but it's still, you know, have to be in the right place at the right time. Some other data points, you know, so you brought up gun control. That's, the data there is really tricky. So, for example, in Australia they passed an anti-assault rifle ban, and after

E: 1997.

S: Yeah, in the years after that, there actually was a fairly dramatic decrease in gun-related homicides, compared to the, the numbers were already decreasing but they, the decrease accelerated after the ban. But it's one, still one data point, one country, and don't necessarily know if we can extrapolate that to the U.S., but then again I found another study and it's actually a systematic review that looked at all the data, looking at the state firearm regulations, and essentially concluded that there is no correlation between any of the types of state restrictions on gun ownership and violent crimes. So the data that we have; but they also said that we don't really have the best data, but the data that exists it's hard, you can't make any statistically significant correlation. But then you could argue that, okay, within the United States there's not enough difference among the regulations to make a difference.

R: And you can easily travel from state to state, with a gun, things like that. And that could make a difference, too.

S: Right. There's also, yeah, there's the gun regulations, there's the culture, the quote unquote gun culture, the availability of illegal guns. There's lots of variables. It makes it difficult to say, if we pass this one law, it would have this effect. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't be considering such laws. I think there are some low-hanging fruit, you know, that should be considered, and these tend to come up every time there's a high-profile case like this. For example, the shooter in this case had a military-style assault rifle, a Bushmaster, which is a civilian version of the M16, and he had magazines with 30 rounds in them. So that raises the debate, do civilians, for target shooting, hunting or even personal security, need military-style assault rifles with large volume magazines?

E: Yeah. This is military equipment.

S: Yeah, exactly.

B: They're weapons of war, and that's definitely something that needs to be considered. We don't, even for home defense, even, well, except maybe for a zombie apocalypse, but all bets are off when that happens.

S: Of course, gun proponents argue that the assault rifle ban in the United States in the 1990s, and this studied specifically, had no effect on violent crime, these kind of killing sprees, or even gun-related deaths. But then the other side says, well, that's because there's already hundreds of millions of guns in the United States and guns are in operation for a very long time, so a ban now isn't going to have an effect. The guns are already out there.

B: Oooo. Really.

S: So the data is really messy, so of course, what that means is you could support any position you want, any political position, you could cherry pick or spin what information is out there to support your side and it doesn't mean that we should not act or that we should not consider, yeah, you know, maybe there should receptor sites for people who have mental illness. Are we really optimally providing services for people who are isolated and maybe struggling, in that very vulnerable age category, et cetera, et cetera. Do we really need to let private citizens own military grade assault rifles? These I think are questions worth addressing and I think they should be evidence-based as much as possible but we need to acknowledge that evidence is messy.

E: Agreed.

China Stabbing (24:22)[edit]

The Inquisitr: Mayan Apocalypse Rumors Had Psychological Effect On Man Accused Of Knife Attack On School In China

R: Unfortunately, speaking of data points, when it comes to these sort of mass killings, just hours, I think, before the elementary school shooting near you guys, there was a knife attack in China. A man went to a local school and cut up a number of people. It was quite brutal. In total there were 22 children that were slashed and I don't think, at this point, that any have died, although there are many in critical condition. So there were 22 children and one adult, were sliced with a knife. Luckily it was obviously so far a better result than what happened in Connecticut. But I thought it interesting to mention, not just because we're on this topic, but also because there are some reports coming out that suggest that the man may have been influenced, and again, in times like these with international news stories like these, it can be very difficult to parse the facts, but, there are some reports saying that the man may have been influenced by the Mayan apocalypse rumors. The 2012 doomsday scenario. There have also been reports that he was influenced by other things as well, so you know, it's by no means, even if that's so, it's not the only cause, I'm sure. But I think it is worth noting because right now in China there is actually a huge problem with doomsday cults and people seriously freaking out about the Mayan apocalypse. It's to the point where the Chinese government has reacted in the way that the Chinese government tends to react to these things, by cracking down and imprisoning people for spreading predictions of the December 21st doomsday. So far, apparently, they've detained 52 people. There're also several cults that have sprung up. One, probably the most, the largest, is a Christian group called the Almighty God, which the state-run media has labeled an evil cult, which is also the term they use for the Falun Gong, apparently. And so this cult is helping to spread those rumors that the world is ending, and it's seriously getting people riled up. On a lighter note, though, I will mention that this cult, and this could be a translation issue, but it's kind of funny, they believe that a new era is going to be ushered in and it will be presided over by a, and I quote, female Jesus.

E: Female. Jesus.

R: So the female Jesus apparently has already arrived. You'd think she'd get a new name, I don't know. But . . . you know.

E: Jessius?

R: No.

E: Joannisus?

R: Female Jesus has manifested herself with her name, apparently. So, but, yeah, the downside is that they are predicting tsunamis and earthquakes and there are people who are taking advantage of this by selling doomsday kits to people to try to make some money off of this, and feed off of people's fears. Tsunami-proofing their rooms and things like that.

E: Tsunami proofing?

R: Yeah.

E: As if that'll do anything.

R: Apparently there are enough people who have a serious issue with this in China that the government has started cracking down on it.

AVN To Change Name (27:56)[edit]

HeraldSun: Minister orders anti-vaccination group to change its name

S: Well, it's always tough to move on after these kind of tragic news stories, but we will do so. A very, just a quick news item next. Have you guys heard of the Australian Vaccination Network?

B: Of course!

E: Absolutely.

S: AVN. Often jokingly called the Anti-Vaccination Network, because they are an anti-vaccination group. It's kind of an Orwellian name, you know, the Australian Vaccination Network, it means the opposite of what it really is. Well, we were sent a report from our Australian colleagues that New South Wales Office of Fair Trading has ordered the AVN to change their name because they found that it is misleading.

B: Oooo.

E: Good.

B: That's great.

S: Yeah, so they'll change their misleading or shut down. They have two options. Or they could be shut down.

E: Well, I hope they choose shutdown. (laughter)

S: Yeah, right.

E: Please choose shutdown.

S: So the Network's name is misleading and a detriment to the community.

R: Well done.

B: Just the name, though?

R: Yeah, really.

S: Yeah, right. The organization is, but

R: Yeah, but, you know, they've got 'em on the run.

B: It's a start.

R: The Australian skeptics have done such a great job of keeping them on their toes.

B: They're kicking butt.

E: Really, think about it. If the Australian skeptics hadn't done any of the work that they've done over the many, many years, who knows where this group would be right now?

S: Right.

R: Yeah.

S: No, they've definitely been kicking ass and taking names, when it comes to this sort of thing.

R: They've been literally taking names.

S: Literally, yeah, that's true. (he laughs) They're literally taking names. I guess the Office of Fair Trade is the equivalent of the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, in the U.S.

R: I think so.

S: I don't know – do they do that? 'Cause I often wondered, there, you guys probably know this, there are products that imply claims in their name. Is that name, is it a claim? Is that a marketable commercial claim?

R: Yeah. I think the FTC has busted companies for that. I'm thinking particularly of beauty products that claim, that have like anti-aging and stuff in their name.

E: Oh. Yeah.

S: Yeah, but is that a claim? Anti-aging, is that the, on the label, or is it really the name?

R: Yeah, the name would be like, L'Oreal Anti-Aging Cream or something. And yeah, they would come in and say you can't have that.

E: Well, we have organizations that tell you what you can label as "low fat" or "no fat" or "low sodium." These sorts of standards have to be abided by in the packaging and promotion of these products. So there's that as well.

S: Oh, yeah, sure. Absolutely.

R: I would just like to say before I get slapped with a libel suit, I have no knowledge of whether or not L'Oreal Anti-Aging Cream works. (laughter)

S: That was just a random example.

R: Yeah.

S: All right. All right.

E: Yeah, and beauty products are in the eye of the beholder. (laughter)

Megalapteryx Foot (30:44)[edit]

Megalapteryx Foot (photo)

S: Well, Evan, you're gonna . . .we have another interesting news items to talk about -- a preserved foot has been making the internet rounds.

B: Cool.

E: Yeah, a preserved foot. A picture of the preserved foot, shall we say, with just three simple words: preserved Megalapteryx foot. And the picture itself. No story, per se, about it, right? You're sort of left to your own devices to go ahead and look up Megalapteryx, figure out what that's all about. And this foot, though, you take a look at it, and I don't know, what were your guys' feelings about when you saw this?

S: Well it looks cool! It looks like a dragon's foot or something. My first, just looking at the picture, again, with no description, was: is this a science fiction thing or is this real? Then the next thought was, is this supposed to be a dinosaur? But then I looked it up and said, it's cool, not quite dinosaur cool. It's an avian dinosaur, not a non-avian dinosaur.

R: I was about to call you on it, damn it! (laughter) Been there before our listeners.

B: It also looks like it's flipping the bird.

R: Yeah. That was my first thought.

E: Someone did say that, yeah.

B: The middle finger.

E: Giving the world the finger, right?

R: Why's that bird claw giving us the bird?

E: Megalapteryx didinus. I like that part: "didinus." Well, a lot of people are just commonly referring to it as megalapteryx, or the Upland Moa, which is a species of moa bird. Native to New Zealand. This bird has been extinct since around the year 1500.

B: Wow.

E: And it was the last moa species to become extinct. So all the moas went bye-bye. Not long after people settled. One stream of study on this believes that they were hunted and killed off as the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori settled in the region.

R: (she pronounces) Moe-ry.

E: Maori. The M People. Settled in the regions. Because they had no natural predators, according to the scientists who have studied this and they were unprotected against the people that found the southern island of New Zealand, and within about a hundred years, they were gone. A few people have asked how is it that we have such, a specimen such as this. It's very much in tact, right? There's certainly the skeleton underneath, the claws are in tact and the meat around the hand, certainly the skin is there. And even some of the feathers, which came close to that region of the lower appendage of the Megalapteryx are still in tact as well. And it just seemed like, some people were asking "where's the rest of it?" You know, why is this, how did this piece survive? And I guess there, for a while, was some question as to how it did survive so long. But they have also found other parts of a Megalapteryx as well, not the exact same bird, but others that were preserved in caves. They found it in a very cool and dry environment, which is considered to be a pretty good environment for keeping in tact these sorts of remains.

S: For actual mummification. These are technically mummies.

R: Specifically, they found it in a cave.

S: Yeah, it was a cool, dry cave. And as the name implies, Upland Moa, these guys lived in higher altitudes where it was colder. And that's also probably why they have feathers so far down on their legs.

R: But do you know the background of this claw? I find that to be really interesting. So this claw comes from a three thousand year-old Upland Moa. And it was found in a cave on Mt. Owen back in 1986. But it turns out that that claw was originally discovered already in another cave in 1863 by James Campbell. But then the specimen completely vanished for several years until it was, it resurfaced apparently, and then there it was. Like, it's very odd.

S: I found one reference to it in an article discussing another specimen – a head, a mummified head.

R: Actually, that's why I was double checking, because I might have read that about the head, and attributed it to the claw.

S: And it does reference . . .

R: I think that's what happened.

S: It does reference that also a claw was found. A foot was found.

R: Right. The head, which is also terrifying, is six hundred years old, and okay, that's the one that was discovered in a different cave in 1863.

S: Right.

R: And then it vanished, and then it showed up again, randomly. Someone sold it to the director of a museum in Wellington. For five pounds, apparently. Okay, so yeah, so this claw, though, was 1986.

S: Right. I don't know why the picture just suddenly started making the rounds. I mean, it's cool. I guess somebody posted it and it just went viral.

R: Yeah, I think it's just one of those things that happens, because I looked at it on TinEye, and it pops up like once a year.

S: Yeah.

R: So. And I read about it in the, in a Cracked article, on That was published back in May of this year.

S: Yeah.

E: Is that a peer-reviewed journal?

R: I think so.

E: Cracked? Did you read some of the comments people left about the photograph that's from Some good ones.

R: No.

E: "Let the cloning begin." "Does it open any doors in Skyrim?" (laughter)

S: That's a good one. It does look like those dragon claws.

E: Someone else said "This reminds me of District 9 for some reason."

S: No.

E: That movie. Yeah. And then someone else wrote, also in the movie vein, Leeloo Dallas Multipass. So, if you remember, before they recreated Leeloo, all they had was the hand, right, the charred sort-of busted-off hand that they had to recreate Leeloo out of. And someone else suggested "We need to plug it in like the alien in Prometheus."

S: The only reasonable comment there was the whole cloning thing. Is there preserved DNA in this kind of specimen?

E: In 2009, ran a story about the feathers from the specimen. They were able to do an analysis of the DNA and figure out what the moa's true colors of the feathers were, by looking at the DNA within the parts of the feathers that were still in tact. From the feathers' shafts, they said, they extracted the DNA and they used the genetic material to prove that the feathers belonged to four specific species of flightless moa, in the case of the article from 2009. It may not have been specifically from this one that is in the picture, but in any case they were able to determine, which I guess was a mystery, what did the plumage look like. And they determined it was sort of a, had a camouflage pattern to it, which makes a lot of sense, because it did have one natural predator, called the Haast's eagle, which is a giant eagle, also in the area, and apparently these eagles would attack these moas.

R: Yeah, you do not wanna meet whatever is preying upon a moa.

Invisibility Cloak (38:03)[edit]

Dvice: Company claims creation of Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak

S: Well, Bob, I hear there's a significant update in the whole invisibility cloak technology thing. Or not. Maybe.

B: We shall see. Here we go again. I feel that we must talk about the latest claim in the march towards the ultimate goal of creating a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak and this one is a doozy. A Canadian company is saying that it's developed a light-weight inexpensive cloaking material called quantum stealth that can make a person disappear, not only in visible light, as if that weren't enough, but also in near infrared and ultraviolet. Just let that sink in for a second. So to put that into perspective, we've talked about this a few times and it's been all over the news for years now. Most claims and actual scientific demonstrations of this type of technology, until now, have worked in a very narrow spectrum, like a slice of microwaves. And with very, very, very tiny objects. Microscopic objects. They use what's called metamaterials which are exquisitely microscopically engineered materials that do very bizarre things to light. Like make it bend around the metamaterial making whatever's inside essentially invisible to that specific frequency. And this is has been done in the past. There's no question about it. There's no claims that they've done this type of cloaking. But this one, obviously, is a horse of a different color. The company making this very bold claim is headed by Guy Cramer and it's called Hyperstealth Biotechnology. They design and develop combat tactical and hunting camouflage. So they're definitely in the industry that could conceivably make something like this. They actually made something relatively recently called Smartcamo, which was in and of itself, less interesting than Quantum Stealth, but really interesting. It had the typical camouflage pattern design but it was an active material that, I think it just ran on batteries that actually adapted to a certain degree to the environment that you were in. So, kind of chameleonic in a sense. A little bit. I mean, it's nothing like the predator or even what they're claiming for Quantum Stealth material. The pictures on line and the video show some interesting things. They show a woman holding what seems to be an invisible stiff kind of poster-board size material that she's standing behind, and essentially you see the wall that's behind her. So anything behind that material, that thing that she's holding, is completely invisible. Another picture shows a person on grass, seemingly obscured by some sort of cloak-like flexible material that shows grass. The grass that presumably would be under it and hiding all but this person's face. They admit, and it's kind of easily, easy to determine, that these images are mock-ups and to show what the material is capable of. They don't hide that at all. They claim that they couldn't use the real actual material because it's a secret and they don't want the image examined too closely for blah blah blah whatever whatever type of reason. Cramer had some interesting quotes. He said regarding this Quantum Stealth material, it's a light-bending material, non-powered adaptive camouflage that portrays what's behind the user in front of the user, bending the light around the target. So, this is a passive material that requires no external energy to do what it apparently, or they say, it does. He also said "Groups now know that it works and does so without cameras, batteries, lights or mirrors. Everyone keeps trying to equate to the Predator movie, and we've gotten there and beyond."

E: Who-o-a.

B: I thought that was an interesting quote. And this last one I'll say, he said "Both the U.S. and Canadian military have confirmed that it also works against military infrared scopes and thermal optics." So he's apparently had people in the military looking at, actually looking at this, and I admit that I was intrigued initially. When I found out about the claim that he had the U.S. and Canadian military vet this, or at least seeing a demonstration and that they were behind it and believed it and kind of supposedly say, or agree with what the claims are. But there's just so many red flags. Oh my god. First off, steady incremental advances have been made for years and we've talked about them. Using metamaterials to cloak objects. But the leaping capability that's being claimed here should make you very skeptical. From specific wavelengths in tiny objects using expensive metamaterial, now they've got a broad swath of wavelengths using human and even, they're talking about, ships and planes potentially, and in a material that's light-weight and inexpensive? Hmmmm. Interesting. It's like going from one of those brick cell phones in the '80s to the iPhone 6 in one generation. It's an immense leap. I will not say quantum leap, 'cause I hate that term. Second, the use of "quantum" in the name. Hello!

(overlapping comments)

B: We've talked about this before. Hello! So, sure, perhaps there could be some weird quantum effect that they're utilizing, maybe. But then I read this quote from the Defense Review website. The interviewer, David Crane, said "And how are you able to capitalize on quantum mechanics? How are you able to utilize quantum mechanics?" Cramer said, "Um, it's not necessarily quantum mechanics." But, that's all I really had to read right there. And he finished by saying "but the resulting material came about because of what we saw happening in a quantum mechanics experiment." Not a good sign, and of course no more details than that. Then another big red flag, he won't show anyone except a select few who may invest or buy some or enter into a contract. Hello!

E: Dennis Lee!

B: That's never a good sign. And it reminds me of, how do you pronounce that company, Steorn? With their endless energy machine, was the same, is the same deal, and we know what happened with that.

R: Yeah.

B: So, who has seen it? That's a key question. I mean if they can't give us any solid evidence or a really good demonstration, who has seen it and what are they saying? Well, one guy's Major Doug McNair from the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. He confirmed that he witnessed a demonstration. So what did he have to say? He said "We didn't pursue it further. At least not at this time, anyway. It wasn't something we were interested in pursuing at the time. It doesn't mean we wouldn't in the future necessarily. We're aware of the company, we have the information, but we don't have a contract in place at the time." Well, isn't that interesting? Hello! (overlapping comments from the others) I mean, come on, you've got the most amazing piece of camouflage ever ever. Almost even conceivable, I mean, this is perfect, right? It seems absolutely perfect. And they're just kind of blasé about it? I don't think so.

E: Blasé. I mean, they were being polite and saying there's nothing there.

B: No, it's, damned by, not even damning by faint praise. It's pretty, you know, we're not interested. We didn't pursue it further. Enough said.

E: In other words, not worth our time.

B: Yeah. And Bill Jarvis. He's affiliated with a firm that's trying to help Hyperstealth apply and sell its products. So this guy's got some solid motivation to be a little optimistic this, he said, he said it works. "The objects appear to go away. What Cramer is saying is exactly what it does, but you've got to be careful with your own expectations of what you think. It's like anything else." Well, gee, that was an interesting way to phrase it. . .

R: Yeah, that's somebody literally describing a magic trick.

B: Yeah. Lower the bar, right?

R: Yeah.

E: If it looks good to you, then hey, then it's good for you. Good enough.

B: Yeah. I have to agree with Evan Ackerman. He's from, a site I frequent, and he wrote the best article, the best treatment of this topic, better than PhysOrg, better than all these other science websites. He was wonderfully skeptical and, about this specific thing he said, well, our, regarding our expectations, they're based on what the dude who invented it has told us and the pictures that he's provided. So it's kind of a weird thing to say, isn't it? If that sounds like some serious hedging to you, I would agree. Absolutely. This guy does not, you know, his comments do not match what this guy Cramer is saying at all. And this guy's got every motivation to really be optimistic about it. There's other things that come to mind. Now, if this fabric shows things that are behind it, then why wouldn't it just show the person that's standing behind it?

S: Yeah, right.

B: You know, how does that work? Other metamaterials completely surround the object so the light impinging on the metamaterial goes around the object and then keeps going. So this is different. That's one thing that was bugging me. The other thing was, the cloak that's on the ground: it showed somebody like, essentially under a Harry Potter invisibility cloak and you see just their head poking out. Now how would that work? Where's the light coming from to be bend around the cloak? The grass is not illuminated underneath the cloak. So how is this, what light is actually being bent to show you the grass?

S: It makes no sense whatsoever.

B: It makes no sense. What this guy's claiming, there's just way way too many red flags. If I had to put money on it, something is seriously wrong with this. Either they're completely overselling it or they're just lying. I don't know, what are they, trying to get some money out of the military? Or something, and investors?

S: It sounds like a scam. Total B.S.

B: Totally. But the weird thing is, it's not like they're saying, you know, we need just a little bit more money and we could really bring this home. Then they've got a way out. They could say, well, thank you for your money but the research and development didn't work out. They can't say this because they're saying "We have it. It's done. Here it is. Bam. Let's just scale this up to cover whatever we want." You know, tanks, planes, whatever, even ships, potentially. It seems like they've got it, so I would think this is gonna crash and burn very quickly.

R: Well, probably, as with Stoern, it'll just be quietly swept under the rug once nobody buys into it.

B: yeah.

E: Umm.

B: Absolutely, but, he claims, at least, that the military say

S: But they're not, though. The information that we have, we don't have any confirmation that there's any interest from the military.

B: Right. Except from what this guy said. I looked at a bunch of websites. Perhaps there's some stuff out there that I wasn't aware of, like a quote directly from the military that escaped me. But I did some solid research. I couldn't find anything other than what I found, and, just no way. Sorry.

Special Report (48:19)[edit]

Movieline: The Science of High Frame Rates, Or: Why 'The Hobbit' Looks Bad At 48 FPS

S: So guys, I think I'm the only one of us who actually saw The Hobbit over the weekend in this new high-frame rate technology that we talked about a few months ago.

R: Yeah

E: Oooooh

B: Oh, man, I'm so bummed I didn't see it with you last night, Steve.

E: Soon. I'll see it soon.

S: Yeah, it was kind of a busy weekend. We tried to do it, I was the only one who actually made it. I'm sure you guys will see it soon. But we have to just, I just want to talk about . . .

R: Why don't you go ahead and ruin it for us?

S: Let me do that. Let me ruin it for you. No, I'm not gonna give any spoilers. I'm just gonna talk about the technology. So, if you remember we talked about, a few months ago, the fact that The Hobbit was being filmed by Peter Jackson in the 48-frames-per-second. The standard cinema is 24 frames-per-second. And there was some initial negative reaction saying that it looked too real, and not cinematic, and people found it disturbing. So we were all curious. How could higher quality be worse? I was very interested to see what it turned out to look like and further, you know, I saw it on Sunday, it came out on Friday, just in those two days there's been so much discussion and articles and everything about it. I've heard things all over the place. Some people thought it was terrible, other people thought it was the best 3D they've ever seen. So, I didn't know what to expect. So, I saw it in 3D high-frame rate and bottom line, I thought it was fabulous. I thought the movie was fabulous. Also the negative things I heard about the movie, I didn't agree with. I thought it was great. I'm a fan, but still I thought it was great. So the high-frame rate technology, sure, there are scenes where it has this hyper-realistic look to it. Before I saw the movie we anticipating what the hubbub was about and it was, I guess the concern was, if it looks hyper-realistic, that's great for nature photography, you know, nature documentaries and sporting events.

E: Yup.

S: But for film, the problem is it is actually fake. For a movie . . .

R: Yeah, you don't want it to look like it exactly what it is, because what it is is some actors on a set.

S and B: Exactly.

S: Exactly. And interestingly, by coincidence, my TV crapped out a couple weeks ago, and I just bought a new TV that's 1080p, you know, high definition and has a higher refresh rate, and it was the same thing in that it looked hyper-realistic. And it was odd. It was a little disconcerting at first, but I very quickly got used to it.

B: Yeah, Steve. I'm in the same boat. My TV has a really really high refresh rate. So high that TV can't even quite match it yet. But at first you're like, whoa!

R: First-world problems.

B: Yeah, I know, right – very first world. But at first you're like, this looks too weird. I'm not sure I'm really liking this. But now, after a couple months, it's like, I don't even think about it and it's, and you get used to it, and that's what Jackson kind of predicted. That after a while you'd get used to the high-frame rate. You really can't go back to the old stuff. But still, I'm not sure how true that is. But I can understand, I would think I'd have a very similar reaction to Steve. And partly because I think we're used to this similar thing with our TV and so we've become kind of inured to it. But for someone who has never really seen that, I think it's a little bit jarring at first.

S: Yeah. So I could definitely see if that were people's first experience it might be a little jarring. I was already over the worst because I'd been seeing it on my TV. But still, the other thing is, so okay, it looks like this hyper-realistic image, but the sets in the movie were gorgeous. I mean they built Hobbiton, so okay. It looks like you're in Hobbiton. It doesn't look like, there's no facades, you know what I mean?

B: Yeah.

S: It's not like you could tell that this is not a real building, because the movie . . .

B: Like TV. When they went to HD on TV, they had to redo a lot of the sets for these TV shows 'cause they looked like sets. The imperfections were totally glaring. But now of course they've adapted.

S: So now in this movie, they were either in the wilderness, which is fine, or they were in Hobbiton, which was, it was real. It was a built town. I thought the CG special effects were fine. They were good; I thought they meshed really well. I didn't see a problem. So you're looking at Golum, and he looks hyper-realistic, but hyper-realistic CG works. It was fine. I did not have any problem with the special effects or the hyper-realism. I thought it all worked well. And I enjoyed the movie, it was actually, I was underwhelmed. I was expecting it to be more than it was because of all the hype. It really wasn't that big a deal. And you adapt to it very quickly. I do think, so, okay, I'm trying to describe the experience. There is a little bit of a loss of the larger-than-life feel that you get with a movie. You know. It does bring it down, it makes it feel a little bit down-to-earth and more mundane because it is so realistic. And so it's not quite as large as life. But that's the thing you gotta get used to. And when you get used to that, you feel more like you're in Hobbiton, you know, then it's o, you could be okay with it and you can enjoy it and it's fine. Does that make sense?

B: Yeah, and that's something that I think that the experience, that people experience a similar thing during the transition from black-and-white to color, somebody mentioned.

S: Yeah.

B: It's a similar thing, and Orson Welles kind of, with some lighting techniques, was able to bring back that larger-than-life aspect. This is what I recently heard; I haven't looked into that aspect of things. So, and there's also the things that I found puzzling when the snippet of the movie came out earlier this year, and everyone was complaining. And Jackson said hey, you know, this hasn't gone through post-production yet. We're going to process the image and kind of give back some of that cinematic sheen that's overlaid on conventional movies that'll give it this larger-than-life and this mystical, magical quality of sorts. I don't know if he actually did it, or if he did it and it didn't quite work as he intended. 'Cause it still seems like, it does seem a little, you know, like Steve was saying, it seems not as large as life, not as big and dramatic as conventional movies, but maybe they can bring that back with new techniques. 'Cause remember, this is the very beginning of this technology,

S: Yeah.

B: Who knows what they can have in five years.

S: I think he did it and it worked,

B: Okay. Maybe.

S: To some extent. I just think that, maybe directors, this is the start of the learning curve here and directors -- this is the first movie, right? For the first high-frame-rate movie I think Peter Jackson did fine. But it was partly I think because of the nature of this particular movie. But I do think that they will figure that out. That they will get better at making it seem larger than life, even though it's hyper-realistic.

E: Definitely.

S: It's something that's very intangible. It's almost hard to put my finger on, like what it was that was different about it. But, that's the best that I could express it. It just made it seem like you were in your house with your friends. Not watching something fantastical and other-worldly. But then you wonder like movies like, let's say, Sin City or 300,

E: Would you want to be in there?

S: Those movies are filmed in such a way that they're, even if they were hyper-realistic, I don't think they would lose their larger-than-life feel. You know what I mean? There was something very cinematic just about the way they were filmed.

R: They're stylized.

B: Oh, they were so stylized.

S: Yeah, they were very stylized, exactly. I think for stylized movies like that, this will be fine. I don't see that same problem. Which is not really a problem, I guess, it's just my bottom line.

E: Can't wait to see it.

S: So maybe we'll talk a little more after you guys see it.

B: Maybe for a romantic comedy, Steve, it would be even more of a let-down (overlapping comments and laughter)

S: It may be. It may be genre-specific. I mean some people have made the analogy that, like, for shows like that, where it's just contemporary people in an apartment, it feels like a soap opera.

B: Right.

E: Yes.

S: It kind of brings it down to that level. But, we'll see. I don't know. I think this is, right at the beginning of this new technology. I think it's gonna work out.

R: Do any of you know the answer to this: why aren't all of the theaters with digital projectors able to show the higher frame rate? 'Cause isn't it just a matter of just opening up a different file? But, you know, I went to try to see the film and found out that they weren't playing the higher frame rate even though they had digital projectors.

S: I guess it's gotta be information processing speed. All the connections, everything has gotta be rated for that processing speed. I had to buy a new cable when I got my higher refresh rate TV to accommodate.

B: Yeah, that's a helluva lot of information to throw it on that screen at twice the rate as previously, so

R: Gotcha.

Who's That Noisy? (57:07)[edit]

  • Last Week's Puzzle: There are three boxes. One is labeled "CARROTS" another is labeled "CELERY". The last one is labeled "CARROTS AND CELERY". You know that each is labeled incorrectly. You may ask me to pick one vegetable from one box which you choose. How can you label the boxes correctly?

S: Well, Evan.

E: Right.

S: Evan, get us up to date on "Who's That Noisy?"

E: We had a puzzle last week, if you recall, for "Who's That Noisy?" And I shall reread the puzzle for everyone's edification. There are three boxes. One is labeled "carrots." Another box is labeled "celery." The last one is labeled "carrots and celery." You know that each labeled box is labeled incorrectly. So you need to ask me to pick one vegetable from one box, you get to choose, and from me picking one vegetable from one box, how will I be able to tell how the boxes should be labeled correctly? What do you think? Did we have any correct guesses on this one?

S: I think so. And just to clarify 'cause there actually was a discussion about this on the messages boards, you could choose the box but not the vegetable. I don't know how people rationalized that you could choose which vegetable you pick. That's the whole point, it's unknown.

E: Right.

S: But picking a vegetable from this box and that will give me the answer.

E: Exactly. And Rebecca, off air, from last week, you were correct.

R: I nailed it!

E: in your analysis of that. But, congratulations

R: Thank you.

E: But seeing as how you are one of the co-hosts, you are not eligible for being the winner

R: Unfair.

E: of the puzzle. And so here's what you do. And a lot of people did get this correctly. You first reach your hand into the box that is labeled "carrots and celery." And you pull out, well, whichever vegetable happens to be in there. You know it's not both, because it's labeled incorrectly. It has to be either a piece of celery or a carrot. So then you've established which one that it is. Let's say I picked a celery out, okay? That becomes the celery box. You know that the other two boxes are mislabeled, so that's it. You just put the puzzle together. The box marked "celery" cannot have celery in it, it must have a carrot in it. Right? And the box marked "carrots" must have both celery and carrots inside.

S: Right.

E: Makes sense.

S: The trick is, I guess, the fact that they're each labeled incorrectly is information that you use.

B: That's key.

E: There are many variations of this puzzle online. I didn't see any using celery and carrots, so I hope that prevented people from immediately Googling the answer, but it was out there to be had. The first one to guess correctly from the message boards, Magnus M, who has been a winner in prior episodes, was the first one to give us the correct guess, there. So, thank you Magnus. And there were a whole lot of you that got it right, so congratulations to everyone.

S: Everybody wins!

E: So, there you have it. For this week, we're going back to "Who's That Noisy?" And I came across something which I found very very interesting. And I hope you will find it interesting as well. So let's play it for you right now.

(a gypsy-style tune played on violin on what sounds like an old scratchy record)

B: That's a song! Right? I kinda liked it.

R: Yeah, I've before the song before, but I don't know what the . . .

S: Okay, interesting. A different one. Thanks, Evan.

E: All right, folks. So send us your guesses. is our forums page, so go ahead and give a guess there, or send us an email at info@the, that is our email. Good luck, everyone.

S: Thanks, Evan.

Science or Fiction (1:00:35)[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. I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fakeroony. We have a theme this week.

E: Rebecca, you love themes.

R: I hate themes!

S: The theme is science stories that we missed throughout the year.

R: Noooooooooo! This is the worst theme!

B: Not now.

E: How can we prepare for that if we missed them?

R: We missed them, Steve.

S: That's right. These are news items that I picked from throughout the year that we didn't talk about, at least I don't think we did. (laughter)

E: You're taking this hard, Rebecca.

S: Sort of an end of the year kind of a theme. So is everyone ready?

R: Yes.

E: I'm as ready as Rebecca is.

S: Here we go. Item number one: New research indicates that Alzheimer's disease may be a prion disease similar to mad cow disease. Item number two: Scientists have created a new form of DNA based upon 8 nucleic acids, rather than 4, with potential applications in DNA computing. And item number three: A new study finds that the ovaries of adult women contain stem cells that are able to generate new oocytes right up to menopause. Bob, go first.

B: Alzheimer's disease may be a prion. I don't know what my memory's dredging up, but I don't have much of a problem with that. Okay. A new form of DNA based on eight nucleic acids instead of four. ______________________________ (1:02:20) Interesting. So they've got more, since they're using eight instead of four, they've got more, more variability. Why is that striking me as a really difficult thing to do? They're building DNA. I mean they could, sure why not? It's weird I've never read about fake DNA like that, and it seems like something that shouldn't be, now that I think about it, it shouldn't be that hard to pull apart to pull off. Applications to DNA computing. I don't know about that angle. I think the four nucleic acid application has such possibility they don't even necessarily need to go to eight, but there could be some benefits that I'm not seeing, going to eight. Crap. Let's see. Ovaries of adult women contain stem cells that are able to generate new oocytes right up to menopause. Wait, isn't that kind of what happens now? I mean, don't women produce eggs, I mean that's what menopause means, that you're not producing, you can't, you're not producing eggs anymore.

S: Would you like me to clarify for you?

B: Please, if you would.

S: We're not talking about ovulation. Ovulation is, like, dropping an egg into the fallopian tubes.

B: Okay.

S: Talking about actually making an oocyte. Generating a new one. So, previous belief was that women with all the eggs they're ever gonna have.

B: Oh, I see. Oh, that's right. Okay. My first thought is that, sure it's possible, but I don't think, evolution wouldn't give a crap, maybe. Like, usually at that age there's no need, why even put the effort into making that, having that be possible. Wow, this is a tough one. So I'm gonna go with the prion one, I don't have much of a problem with that. New form of DNA. I just have not come across anything about DNA like that, ever.

S: I'd rush you, but you're coming off a really bad loss last week, so I'm gonna cut you some slack.

B: A really bad one, oh, thanks for reminding me. (laughter) All right. I'm gonna go with the DNA computing.

S: As the fiction?

B: As fiction.

S: Okay. Evan?

E: I'm leaning towards that as the fiction also. Well, the Alzheimer's disease may be a prion disease. Doesn't, a prion disease just means, well, I think I know what it means, neuro-degenerative disease?

B: Oh, no. No.

E: Is it more specific than that? Now see, maybe I don't know the full definition here. But I get that Mad Cow disease is where the proteins fold in a certain way that they're not supposed to fold and it causes you to, you know, bad things to happen.

S: That's what a prion disease is.

E: Okay. All right. So the folding, so Alzheimer's disease is a folding of the, problem with the folding of the proteins. As opposed to other, some other way it affects the nervous system. Okay. Sure, I don't, "indicates." So I think that's key as to, sure, you could have new research that would "indicate" that. It's not saying that that's definitely the case. They're looking into it and they might be onto something. I think that's right. The DNA based upon eight nucleic acids, though. They're created a new form of DNA? Now I get, okay, with potential applications in DNA computing. You can potentially, I suppose, come up with lots of different, you could play God, for lack of a better term, and come up with a lot of different crazy ideas and things within the context of a computer simulation. But I don't know if they've actually created the new form of DNA. They're probably running it through the systems and stuff, and they haven't actually made it, you know, other than seeing it on computer screens and in hard drives and these sorts of things. So I don't know about that. The ovaries of adult women, though, containing stem cells. Okay. I don't have a problem rethinking that the old concept, and I've heard it before also, that a woman is born with all of their eggs and this could say that they're able to generate new ones as you go along. I don't have a problem with that, so DNA computing, that one's, I think, the fiction.

S: All right. Rebecca?

R: I hope that ovary one is science 'cause I'm 33, nope, 32, I'm 32, so, you know.

E: Plenty to go.

R: I'm down to the, I'm pretty sure I've just got a couple left and they're probably not the good ones. So, (laughter)

S: You better get crackin'.

E: There's only ________, speaking of eggs.

R: Okay, here's my thinking. I have no idea. You guys make good cases for why the DNA one is probably fiction. However, I'm playing a psychological game here, and I'm saying that Steve, his whole thing is the brain, and he knows all about Alzheimer's, why would he miss a news item on Alzheimer's? Like, he's gotta know all about that stuff. So I'm gonna say that that one's the fiction.

B: Well, that's not really what he said.

R: Shut up, Bob! (laughter)

E: Wow! Smack!

R: Don't stop this train, okay? It's too late.

B: Okay.

R: I've made my decision. I'm going with the prion one as the fiction.

S: Okay. So you all agree that a new study finds that the ovaries of adult women contain stem cells that are able to generate new oocytes right up until menopause.

R: No whammy, no whammy, no whammy, no whammy, no whammy, no whammy.

S: And that one is – science!

R: Yes!

E: Okay.

S: So far, so good. Yeah, that one, I was really surprised to read that 'cause I thought it was pretty well accepted that women are born with all the eggs they're ever gonna have. That is the conventional wisdom on that. But there was a study published in 2012 where scientists discovered that the ovaries contain, in both mice and humans they did research, and they found that ovaries contain stem cells, and that these stem cells have the capacity to make new oocytes. New eggs. This capacity diminishes throughout life and peters out right at about menopause. This is research by Jonathan Tilly. Now, this research is still controversial. That's why I said it shows this but it doesn't, certainly not a, hasn't been confirmed yet. This is the problem we run into with science or fiction when we're talking about new research, it's always new research. You know, it's not always cut and dried.

R: Yeah, but all these are old.

E: Earlier in the year.

S: Well, they're 2012, they're from two thousand and twelve.

B: Twenty twelve. (laughter)

S: This one's been out long enough though that another, a group of Swedish scientists from the University of Gothenburg, probably mispronounced that, tried to isolate these cells and they were unable to. But Tilly says they found the wrong cells that they mistook for stem cells, but cells that produce no eggs. So, there's the controversy. We'll have to see if Tilly's research holds up. But that's where it is right now. It would be very interesting. If true, this could lead to a potential treatment for infertility in women. Potentially. Tilly has, in fact, formed a start-up company, OvaScience, using his research, to work on infertility treatments. So we'll see if that pans out.

E: We'll see. Good.

S: All right, let's go back to number one.

R: That's a little early, isn't it? Starting up a whole thing.

S: Yeah. Well, he's got confidence. Gotta give him that.

R: Yeah.

S: New research indicates that Alzheimer's disease may be a prion disease, similar to mad cow disease. Now, Evan, you're right. So, mad cow disease is a prion disease, meaning that it is caused by an infectious protein. Infectious in that proteins are folded in a complicated way and some, a protein can fold the wrong way and that alters its function. But what's interesting is that some proteins that fold the wrong way can actually induce the incorrect folding in adjacent proteins.

B: That's the rub, yeah.

S: Yeah, that incorrect folding can spread like an infection. And it's been established now for about thirty years that mad cow disease, and the human version, which is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and also kuru, that they are caused by these abnormally folding proteins. But this news item is . . Rebecca, you think this one is fiction?

R: I guess.

E: She does.

S: Bob and Evan, you think this one is science, and this one, about Alzheimer's disease, is . . . science.

R: doooww

E: Wow.

B: Ooooooo.

S: Sorry, Rebecca.

R: My psychological play didn't work.

S: I did not miss this news item this year, I just didn't talk about it on the show.

B: Yes.

E: You've been holding out.

B: Rebecca, you shoulda listened to me. (laughter)

R: Shut up, Bob.

S: This is very interesting. This is something that we're talking about in neurology. This is a new idea. So we knew about Alzheimer's disease, that there are abnormal proteins building up in certain neurons, mainly amyloid beta being the big one. It forms those plaques, which gunk up the neurons and then eventually they stop working. There's also other abnormal structures, like neurofibrillary tangles, that have been discovered. So there's been a few studies now that have shown that perhaps the amyloid beta is a misfolded protein that can, like a prion disease, induce abnormal folding in other proteins. And therefore, maybe Alzheimer's disease is just another prion disease.

B: Wow.

S: Wouldn't that be neat? And if that's the case, of course, this could open up a new avenue of potentially therapeutic research, to figure out how to treat it. Not that we know how to treat, or cure, prion diseases, but at least we'll know what's going on. Very, very interesting. It kind of does explain how it progresses, you know, prion diseases tend to simmer along. Like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, you know, the human form of mad cow disease, you probably have your exposure to whatever the inciting agent is, fifteen years before you actually start to develop symptoms. But then once you develop symptoms it progresses very, very quickly. People with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CJD, survive for months, a few months, six, seven months, on the outside after they are diagnosed. So it's like a geometric kind of progression where you have something that's sort of doubling over time. For a long time you're on that flat part of the curve. Now when you sort of reach that critical

B: The knee, the knee of the curve, yeah.

S: Yeah, the knee of the curve, then boom it's just, the brain turns to mush, basically. It's actually called spongiform encephalopathy.

E: Sounds awful.

S: The brain looks spongy when you look at it under a microscope—it's full of holes. Breaks down.

B: Which means?

S: Which means that scientists have created a new form of DNA based on eight nucleic acids rather than four with potential applications in DNA computing is --- fiction --- but it is based on a real news item. And this is, scientists have developed new forms of DNA, but they did not vary the nucleic acid, the NA part, they varied the deoxyribo part. So, the sugar part. So instead of the sugar backbone, they used other molecules, so they made ANA, TNA, HNA, FANA, basically using different backbones with the nucleic acids, to make synthetic genetic molecules. Collectively known as XNAs, or xenonucleic acids.

B: Oh, I love it.

E: I like, yeah, I like that. ZNAs would have been good, too.

S: ZNAs, yeah.

E: Zombie DNA or something.

S: And they need their own enzymes to read them. So you can make entirely artificial life, potentially, with these.

B: Ooo. Can't wait.

S: Yeah, so, very interesting. So I, I just sort of flipped the part that they manipulated. But yeah, I don't know how we missed that one.

B: Yeah, that's a, interesting one.

S: So

R: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S: Good job, Bob and Evan.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:19)[edit]

S: Well Jay is not here to do the quote this week, so I am going to fill in for him. I'll read the quote, you guys tell me who you think this sounds like.

There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves.

E: Hmmm.

B: Wink Martindale?

S: Close.

R: Carl Sagan.

S: It's my go-to source for skeptical quotes, David Hume.

B: Oh, yeah.

E: Oh, Hume.

S: David Hume said that.

E: Very good.

S: Philosopher. One of the intellectual pillars of . . .

R: Of some note.

S: Of some note, yes. Of science and reason. So, the next show is our year-end wrap-up show.

B: Oh, boy.

R: It's a fun one.

S: Always a lot of fun, always a lot of fun. Well, thanks for joining me this week, everyone.

B: You're welcome, Steve.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Doctor.

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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