SGU Episode 507

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SGU Episode 507
March 28th 2015
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 506                      SGU 508

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


C: Chris Patil

GH: George Hrab

Quote of the Week

I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.

Stanley Kubrick

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • What's new with George

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (3:14)[edit]

  • Women of ENIAC: The Team of 6 Women who were the first to program ENIAC, the first all electronic digital computer

S: Well, Bob, we have, apparently, six Forgotten Superheroes of Science this week.

B: Yeah, this one was fun. It's not a person, but a group of them. The first programmers of ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer, were six women. I did not know this! They are Kathleen McNulty Machkley, Antonnelli Gene Jennings, Bartnic, Francis Snider Holderton, Marylyn Westkoff Meltzer, - god, they all have three names! Francis Byliss Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Heidelbom. Ever hear of them? I had not! And they actually

(Steve laughs)

B: languished in obscurity for over fifty years, until the 1980's, when they were rediscovered. This, when the US army decided to create ENIAC, they realized that they needed people to program it. So they looked at a pool of eight women computers, and that's what they were called - they were called computers in that day.

E: Right. As in a person for (inaudible) things.

B: The mid-forties, yes, who computes, yes. And they were calculating during World War II, ballistic trajectories using complex differential calculations. So they were smart, very bright, of course, they knew their stuff. They in the mid-forties, they picked six of these women, six of the women that stood out, extra, just a little bit extra than some of the others.

So, like I said, ENIAC was the first all electronic programmable computer.

S: Bob, what does ENIAC stand for?

E: Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.

B: Yes, what he said!


B: That's what it stands for! Now, ENIAC was.

E: Also known as ENIAC.

B: ENIAC was three orders of magnitude faster than pretty much the best electro-mechanical computers of the day. It also had general purpose programmability. So those two facts, more than any else, made this a cutting edge and very exciting project for scientists, industrialists, just, anybody kind of in the know. It was big.

So, these women learned to program it, and remember, they had no programming languages to help them. They had no programming tools, or even manuals, because they weren't invented yet! They just did not exist. So, all they had to go by were these complex, logical diagrams. That's what they had to use to program this thing. It was fiendishly complex.

It was able to compute the complex ballistic trajectories in seconds when they were done - in seconds! This was thousands of times faster than these equations have ever been run before. It was quite extraordinary. Yet, when the army showed ENIAC to the public, they introduced the male hardware designers, of course, but the programmers were not even mentioned. That was a big day, when they unveiled this to the public. It was like an all day event. It took a while. All day! There was just no mention of them at all.

They were essentially lost to history until 1985, when they were rediscovered by a woman programmer who was kind of feeling kind of anxious that women in her field just kind of slowly dropped out as they got to more and more higher level programming classes. And she's like, "Wow, what is the future for me?" And she saw this picture of these women, who are like, "Who are these women?" Nobody knew, even computer historians had no idea. They assumed that the women in the picture were just, they called them refrigerator women, which meant that they were kind of like, models, that were just placed there to look good.

E: Price Is Right models.

B: Right, that, exactly. Exactly. But he was wrong. They went through much, much research, and found out who these women were, interviewed them, fascinating stories. And even after the project, many of these women devoted themselves to making programming easier, and making programming known to others, and accessible to others. They really helped lay the foundation for the programming marvels that are done today.

Historically, men have essentially always been at the forefront of hardware design, but when it came to software, they had less respect for it. They thought it would be easy, so therefore, they kind of like, "Oh, let's have the women do this thing, kind of." And they didn't realize that programming is as instrumental and as important as hardware design. It's incredibly important. And these women took a commanding role, like Ada Lovelace, which I mentioned last month or so, and even Lieutenant Grace Hopper. These women and the others went out there, and just laid the foundation for programming as it is today.

So, and these six ENIAC women, were even less known, much less well-known than Ada, or Lieutenant Grace Hopper, but they still showed that programming is critical as hardware design. So in 1997, these six women who did most of the programming for ENIAC were inducted in to the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.

E: Yeah!

B: So guys, remember these women - Tenelli, Bartic, Holberton, Meltzer, Spence, Heidelbom; mention them to your friends, perhaps when you're discussing plug board wiring, and ten-way switches on portable function tables, especially them.

E: (Chuckles) And remind them that that's not a law firm.

B: (Chuckles) Yes, it's not.

GH: Whenever someone talks about women not being good at math, and science,

b: Ha!

GH: and numbers, those names should be tatooed on that person's forehead.

S: Yeah, yeah, they were, a lot of these women were mathematicians, that's what they

E: Absolutely

S: were trained.

B: And they're the tip of the iceberg.

GH: Right

S: Yeah

B: Many of the people I've discussed, many of the women I have discussed are just brilliant. I mean, it's just even silly to contemplate the idea that they can't be as adept as anybody else. It's silly to even think about.

S: Now, you say programming, these computers, which they were doing. But they weren't writing code. They were flipping switches. Programming

B: Flipping switches,

S: Yeah

B: Plugging things in, changing wires. It was a fiendishly complex and mind-numbing process. And you had to know what you were doing exactly

E: Oh yeah.

S: Yeah

B: why you were doing it, how everything interrelated. It was incredibly tough. And that hardship that they went through, they were among the people that helped lay the foundation to make it easier. And they were actually the only people ever to program the ENIAC at that low machine level

S: Y

B: because it didn't take too long after them that they went to higher level languages, that were at least, still difficult as hell, but not as difficult as doin' all this stuff.

E: Here's an observation. I was reading a little bit about this, Bob, and they started work on it in July of 1943. Obviously, this is the

B: On ENIAC? Are you sure?

E: middle of World War, well, construction contract was signed June 5, 1943.

B: Okay

E: Work on the computer began in secret, University of Pennsylvania's Morris School of Electronic Engineering a month later. So, with that time, I imagine that part of the reason why women were recruited to do this job, you know, because we were in the war. And the women had to kind of, in a lot of areas of technological advancement in the country, had to step up, and take jobs that might otherwise have been reserved strictly for men. Especially something like this.

So it was kind of the right people in the right time of it all coming together, and doing something really fantastic. And you know, it was fortunate that these women were able to do this work.

B: Yeah, I think, actually, they started work, on ENIAC, though, was after the war. At least a couple of my sources mentioned that, that it was after the war. I believe during the war, they were actually doing,

S: The computing.

B: the calculators.

S: Yeah

B: The computing, working as computer people.

News Items[edit]

Titius-Bode Law and Exoplanets (10:54)[edit]

Largest Asteroid Impact (21:35)[edit]

Gold from Crap (27:52)[edit]

(Commercial at 33:18)

FDA-Homeopathy (34:51)[edit]

S: Just a quick announcement before we go onto other things. The FDA - the Food and Drug Administration - is announcing a public hearing on their regulation of homeopathic products.

GH: Wow!

S: And they're looking for input from the public. This'll be April 20th and 21st, so just next month, from 9 AM to 4 PM in Silver Spring, Maryland. We'll have the link for all the information. So, hey, if you can be in Silver Spring, Maryland on April 20th to 21st, and you wouldn't mind getting up in front of the FDA and explaining to them that homeopathic remedies are pure pseudoscientific bullshit, then you can go online, and you can register, to have your fifteen minutes to give them this feedback.

You can be sure that the homeopaths are gonna be there telling them how wonderful it is. So, yeah, we need to pack that room with as many skeptics as possible.

B: Yeah

S: Unfortunately, I have work and stuff, so I can't be there. But, yeah, we're gonna, so the other Science-Based Medicine guys and I'll be investigating this, seeing exactly what kind of information they're looking for, and, but they do say that they do have specific questions, but they're also just interested in open-ended feedback from the public. So, it certainly couldn't hurt to get some skeptics in that room, armed with some information about homeopathy.

GH: Yeah, overdose. Sheer overdose.

S: Yeah, right, right, right. Just

GH: Seriously!

E: Overdose

GH: Yeah

E: Explain how one, if one molecule of the substance were a grain of rice, it would have to be, they're dissolved in a sphere of water the size of the solar system with Pluto at the outer end of

S: Y

E: the solar system. That's how much water,

(Bob laughs)

E: that's how diluted these solutions are.

S: As one of my colleagues pointed out, they must already know that it's pseudoscientific nonsense, so

B: Eh, some of 'em.

E: What are they really doing here?

S: Y

B: Not necessarily, though. You know the depths that people can go.

S: We also don't know how much leeway they have, 'cause Congress controls what the FDA can do.

GH: Who knows what's on the board too?

S: Yeah

GH: Who knows who's in positions of power, how they got there?

E: Who got appointed, right, yeah.

GH: You know, you would think that the people on the Science Committee in Congress, like, understood things about science, but

S: Yeah, you would think

GH: that's not.

E: That's right. Like the Earth is six thousand years old.

GH: Right, it's a huge assumption.

S: But anyway, we'll be that voice in the wilderness, and get the skeptical position

E: Yeah

S: heard.

E: Get your activism on, yeah!

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1. Composting Follow Up (37:13)[edit]

  • Various e-mails regarding composting

S: Well, guys, let's move on to a question this week, actually. I got about thirty or forty emails. I asked you guys to tell me about your experience with composting, and a lot of you emailed in to tell me your experience. George, do you compost?

GH: No, but I recycle a lot of my jokes.

(Bob laughs)

S: Good

E: That's a form of composting.

S: The emails were very nice. Most of them were extremely polite and informative. A couple were unnecessarily snarky, but that's par for the course.

E: Thank you for those.

GH: You mean they were smelly?

(Steve laughs)

GH: They were kind of stinky? They were kind of gross, and moist, and kind of

S: Well, you know,

GH: covered in a, yeah.

S: when you deal with any kind of environmental issue like this, some people

GH: Right

S: I think emotions run high with some people. But anyway, the gist of my, I was answering a question about composting versus using a disposal. And the gist of my treatment of it was that composting is a great idea, but it's a lot of work. But I haven't done it, so I asked people who have done it to write in and tell me their experience. The overwhelming consensus of people who wrote in is that it's not that much work, that composting is easy.

B: I liked one guy said that comparing the time spent to a pet was maybe not accurate, unless your pet was like a goldfish.

S: Yeah, all right, but here's the thing.

E: They didn't say what kind of pet.

S: Here's

GH: Which are compostable, by the way.

(Bob laughs)

S: (Chuckling) So,

(Evan laughs)

S: But some of the emailers were, I think, put it into perspective by saying that you can "lazy" compost

B: Yes

S: really easy.

B: Don't even turn it.

S: So, you know, again, I admit, I haven't composted, although I'm definitely gonna compost this summer, just so I can do it for myself and see how it goes. Plus

GH: Steve! Do the dishes! Honey, I'm lazy composting.

(Bob laughs)

S: Lazy composting. So, what, I read a lot about composting, and they certainly make it seem difficult, or at least labor intensive.

B: (Laughs) That's high end composting.

S: Well, yeah, like, I, so the thing is, I did think that you had to do at least some of this stuff to get to to work. And what people are saying is, "No, you just can throw your organic waste, basically any vegetable matter, into the bin, and forget about it. That's it. You don't have to do anything else." But, if you read how to compost, or Composting 101 sites, this is the kind of things they tell you to do.

So I'm gonna quickly go over how to do high end composting. One thing is that you have to mix brown compost and green compost in the right ratio, three to one, three to one brown to green is optimal.

B: You lost me. You lost me already.

S: Brown, or things that are high in carbon like leaves. So leaves are brown, right, they don't say anything about that. Or, you can use shredded paper, or you can you cardboard, and things like that. And green things are like grass, weeds, and then basically all the vegetable matter from your kitchen, right? I forgot to mention, do not throw meat in your compost pile, 'cause that will attract maggots. Although some people said you could do that, but you have to know exactly what you're doing. So you're best off just not putting any meat in your compost pile.

You can put egg shells. Egg shells are fine. Coffee grounds, tea bags, those are all good. So those are high in nitrogen. And you have to balance the carbon and nitrogen so that you can feed and not kill your organisms. A lot of sites, and the instructions I had on how to do it said that there are various ways that you can get the bacteria in there, products that you can buy to sort of start the culture going. Most people said, "Nah, the bacteria's in the soil. You don't have to worry about it. The bacteria'll get in there." And the worms are doing most of the decomposing anyway.

B: Ah!

S: So just as long as it's connected to the ground, right? You don't want to, if you have the lid, it should be open on the bottom so it's touching the ground. Although some sites say you might want to put it on a wood platform or on sticks so you can aerate underneath better.

You do have to turn it to aerate it, but again, our emailers said they don't do it at all. Sites say you should do it once or twice a week. Or you could do it less often. The bottom line is, the more frequently you turn the compost, the more evenly it'll be mixed together, and the faster the whole process will go. So this doesn't, it's not necessary, but it makes it go faster.

One site I read said that you can actually measure the temperature of your compost heap. To get it up to like, that 140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit level

B: Whoa!

S: which is

E: Wow!

S: whatever that is in Celsius. And that, if you get, you want to, 'cause the temperature tells you how quickly it's decomposing. And if it gets hot enough, it'll kill off any weed seeds, and it'll kill off any pathogens. So you want to maintain the temperature by turning it, and tweaking the ratio of the carbon rich and nitrogen rich, and keeping the moisture content just right. If it gets too wet, it'll get smelly. If it gets too dry, it won't decompose. If you get it too hot, you'll kill off your worms. You can worm compost, like with red worms, but then you want to keep it cool. You don't want to make it get hot, because that will kill off the worms. So, forgive me for thinking that this a little complicated.

GH: (Laughs) Where does the styrofoam go?

S: (Chuckles) Yeah, right. So, but, so the bottom line is, I guess, is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you want to. I guess it's like saying, "Yeah, gardening is easy. Just throw plants in the ground. It grows, it rains. And you pick it when it's ready." Yeah, you could garden that way. You can also high end garden, where you are carefully choosing which plants you plant next to others, and the soil pH, and the amount of moisture, and the exact ratio of fertilizer for the different kinds of plants. Knowing how to rotate and harvest, and all that stuff.

So you could high end garden as well. Composting is the same. You could, one guy said, I just throw stuff in a hole in the ground, and it turns into dirt. And then I plant shit on it.

(Bob laughs)

S: That was the composting.

E: Okay

S: The problem with that though, is that it attracts critters, if you have an open compost pile, and little critters attract bigger critters. So I think there's probably a happy medium in there, you know, where you're paying some attention to what you're putting in there, and maybe turning it occasionally, but you're not driving yourself crazy with it. So I'm gonna give it a try. I'll see if I can successfully compost. And it does turn into a nice, rich soil that you could then use in your garden. So at the

E: Yeah!

S: And you do keep it out of the landfill, which is the ultimate goal, right?

GH: Right

E: Hey George,

GH: Yeah!

E: You know what happened when they buried Mozart?

GH: He decomposed?


E: Ah, you're such a good rogue. I set 'em up, you knock 'em down.

GH: (Sarcastic) That was great.

Dumbest Thing of the Week (43:37)[edit]

S: All right, this brings us to the Dumbest Thing I heard this week. Actually, I

GH: That was it right there

E: (Laughs) Thank you.

GH: Nicely done.

S: A lot of contenders this week, but I went with Ted Cruz, mainly because he just announced that he's running for President, so, you know

B: Oh my god! If only two percent of the things I've read about him on Facebook are true.


B: (Loudly) Oh my god!!

S: So

E: I don't think we have to worry.

S: Republican from Texas, who doesn't believe in global warming said, and I quote, "You know, it used to be, it accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat. And this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier,"

(Evan groans)

S: he said.

E: Yep.

S: So,

B: Oh god.

E: That'll just

S: If you're going to make a comment like that, don't be historically inaccurate.

GH: It pours C. Moron.

S: Yeah. (Snickers) So, first of all, Galilea didn't demonstrate that the Earth wasn't flat. He promoted the idea put forward by Copernicus that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than the other way around. Nothing to do with the Earth being flat.

B: Wow

S: And it was never, ever, ever, accepted scientific wisdom that the Earth was flat. The ancient Greeks figured out that the Earth was a sphere, was basically round. And that has been the accepted scientific wisdom ever since. It is a myth.

E: Thousands of years.

S: It is a myth that medieval scholars thought the Earth was flat. It's not true. So every time someone says, "Ah, they used to think the Earth was flat," they're doubly wrong. It's not true, and it's a stupid point anyway, that because they were wrong in the past, that they're wrong now.

And Cruz is making what we call the Galileo Gambit, comparing himself to Galileo, really. It's like, yeah, they made fun of Galileo, and he turned out to be right, so therefore

E: And therefore ...

S: every crank spouting nonsense today is also right, I guess.

GH: Wasn't that great, where he announced his candidacy?

B: Yeah, right?

GH: Did you see where that was?

E: At that church versity?

GH: At Charity University.

B: Ah!

E: Jerry Falwell!

GH: Charity University, yep.

E: Stomping grounds, yeah.

GH: In Lynchberg, Virginia.

B: (Chuckling) Lynchberg!

(Steve chuckles)

GH: And the students were required to be there.

E: Yeah

GH: Ten thousand students were required to be there, or else they were fined ten dollars.

E: Yup

S: Really

B: I would have gladly paid that.

E: And fifty rosaries, yeah.

GH: That's exactly who you want, you know, when you're starting Yeah our campaign to be President of these United States.

E: Next, next

GH: You want to be in front of a crowd that's forced to be there in a religiously based institution. Love it.

E: And that's why he's polling at like, two percent.

Chris Patil (46:21)[edit]

  • Top 100 finalist for the Mars One project.

(Commercial at 1:05:33)

Science or Fiction (1:06:47)[edit]

Item #1: A 2014 systematic review finds that listening to Mozart, particularly Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448, significantly reduced seizure frequency and epileptiform discharges on electroencephalogram in seizure patients. Item #2: Elvis Presley, a prolific song writer, penned more top 40 hits than any other artist. Item #3: A 2012 study found that modern pop music has evolved over the last 50 years to an increasingly simplified palette of pitch transitions and timbre. In fact a great deal of modern pop music is based off the same four chord progressions.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:24:54)[edit]

"I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker." - Stanley Kubrick

S: 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, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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