SGU Episode 593

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SGU Episode 593
November 19th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)
SGU 592 SGU 594
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
'They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.' Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Cara is watching West World

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (5:05)

  • Percy Lavon Julian 1899-1975, was a brilliant African American research chemist and pioneer who rose to great career heights despite the obstacles in his path.

S: All right, Bob, get us started with a Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Okay, this week, I'm going to talk about Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975). He was a brilliant African American research chemist and pioneer who rose to great career heights despite the many obstacles in his path.

So, as an African American in the early 1900's, you can imagine, I sure, how difficult it could be to get higher education, at university for example. He couldn't stay in the dorms. And the off campus boarding home refused to provide meals. And after graduating as valedictorian from DePaul University, and attending Harvard, from a fellowship that he got, he had to withdraw, because Harvard stopped him from being a teaching assistant, because they were afraid it would cause resentment from the other students. It was terrible.

After he finally got his degree, it was no better. He was refused a professorship at DePaul once they found out that he was black. But despite all of that, and many, many more horrible things he experienced, he did amazing things. At Glitten, he was critical to the Navy's fire fighting foam that literally saved thousands and thousands of lives aboard ships.

It was his other achievements though, that really cemented his legacy. He invented a technique of synthesizing progesterone (estrogen and testosterone) from plants. Now, these hormones were, clearly, this was the beginning of the ability to actually create these hormones, and the recognition of just how important and helpful they could be.

But they could only extract a tiny, tiny amount. They'd have to basically get animal spinal cords, and kind of distill it from them. And they could just get these very very small amounts. His method was able to create a hundred pounds of these hormones every day. Huge leap in production capability.

So this led, of course, to industrial scale production for many uses, like hormonal deficiencies. He seemed to be able to do the same thing for much of the rest of his career. Pretty much whatever expensive chemical he focused on, he was able to devise a way to make it orders of magnitude less than it was. Really had tremendous impact on these industries, which is actually pretty incredible, considering that his house was fire bombed twice after he moved in the fifties. This guy, it was just terrible. He actually, he and his son would sit in a tree in front of his house with a shot gun, waiting for people to try and blow up his house.

So, remember Percy Lavon Julian; mention him to your Facebook friends, perhaps when commenting about neurosteroid active metabolites, or even negative allosteric modulators.

C: Don't you love that name, Percy? It's

S: Yeah

C: so old school.

E: Oh yeah!

B: Yeah

C: Is it Percival? Is it short for Percival?

B: I've only seen Percy. Possibly.

C: Oh, interesting. So he might actually have just been named Percy. You know, I have one of those weird, old school middle names. It starts with an L. It's not that old school. It's more like forties.

S: Louise?

E: Lorraine.

C: Louise! You got it, yeah.

E: Louisey!

B: Oh!

C: Louise.

B: That's my mother's middle name!

C: It's so old school.

E: No way! What's the odds?

B: Cool

C: (Laughs) Oh my god!

B: That's a quadrillion to one!

(Cara laughs)

News Items

FTC and Homeopathy (8:19)

Stoern Liquidates (25:02)

STDs Rising (31:56)

(Commercial at 42:47)

Finding Antibiotics in the Genome (44:28)

What's the Word? (49:35)

S: All right, Cara, it's time for What's the Word.

C: Yay. So the word this week was recommended by Etai? in Los Angeles. Notice how I said that with a big question mark on the back. E-T-A-I. You think that's eh tie?

S: I think it's extraterrestrial artificial intelligence.

C: Maybe it is! Ooh!

B: That sounds good, Cara. I think you pronounced it properly.

E: I like that one.

C: All right! All right, so, the word this week is isotropic. And it was actually recommended because we talked about this in a Science or Fiction a few weeks ago. But we didn't actually use the term. So, for something to be isotropic, it looks the same in all directions. It's invariant with respect to direction. It has equal properties and values along all physical axes. It's actually in contrast to things that are anisotropic, which means that there's a different physical value when they're measured in different directions. A good example of that would be wood. Wood is generally stronger along the grain than against the grain. So that would be anisotropic.

Isotropy is actually one of the two underlying assumptions of the cosmological principle, which states that the observable universe has no preferred direction. The other principle, of course, is homogeneity, meaning that the universe is the same everywhere, with no preferred origin.

So, I can see how those two things might get confused, isotropy and homogeneity. So to keep them straight, think of a world that's made up of just a flat land (perfectly round, flat land), with one big mountain on it, that's perfectly symmetrical. If you were standing on top of the mountain, from your vantage point, the universe would be isotropic. It would look the same in all directions. It would have similar steepness to the mountain, the colors of things would be similar. It would be isotropic. But it would not homogenous, because there's a giant mountain underneath you. So it's a good way to keep them straight.

B: Sure

C: Or maybe it's not so good a way. But (laughs), but it is an example, nonetheless. Isotropy is based on the Greek root words iso, which we hear a lot as a prefix. That means the same, or equal. And tropicos, meaning belonging to a turning. That actually came from the root tropos, which is also Greek; which is a turning away, or a manner. So it's kind of the same way in every way. And the term was first introduced into the science literature in 1856.

S: In your example, in standing on top of the mountain, does isotropy, can that be from a particular vantage point only? Because if you were not on the mountain, it would not be isotropic.

C: I think so, because if you're saying that something looks the same, and is measurably the same in all directions, you have to be in a specific vantage point. And I think that's one of the really cool things about the cosmologic principle, is that you could be in this part of this galaxy, or you could be in a totally different place in spacetime. And if you look around, it's supposed to look the same in all directions. So I think your vantage

S: Right, we have no option but to look at the universe from the vantage point of Earth

C: Exactly, yeah.

S: Yeah

C: But I do think that it is vantage point respective when we're talking about direction. Although generally, when we're talking about physical principles outside of kind of the – I don't want to say – the mind “F” that is the cosmological principle, we're often just talking about measurements. You know, if you're looking at, to take a simple example, a polygon, and you were to measure all of its axes, it would be isotropic if all of the axes were the same length. So in that case, your vantage point is beyond what you're actually measuring.

S: Yeah, so it you're talking about an object, like, would you say a sphere is isotropic?

C: Yeah

S: Yeah

C: Yeah, it's the same in all directions. And it's homogenous, technically.

S: Yeah

C: Unless it's a sphere that has, like, chocolate chips in it.

E: But that is not a sphere.

C: But it's hard, right? It's actually hard to talk about

B: Yummy sphere.

C: something that is isotropic, but not homogenous,

S: Yeah

C: or something that is homogenous, but not isotropic. So, yeah. It's almost like, if it's isotropic, you have to be able to do a three hundred sixty degree turn, look up, look down, measure everything in all directions, and it's all the same. Light is often isotropic. We think of it as being, it scatters in all directions. But for something to be homogenous, for it also to not be homogenous, that's a difficult thing to conceptualize. So, maybe in that case, it has to be different below you or above you, but still the same in all directions. It's complicated.

Questions and Emails

Question #1: P-Hacking (54:04)

Hello everyone, long time listener and first time writer. I drive a lot for work and I love when you cram knowledge in my ears to shape my thinking. On the 10/8 SGU podcast you mentioned the concept of p hacking in the context of power poses. I don't know if I understand the p-hacking concept well. My question centers around research connected to my work. I'm in the process of launching one of the Injectable PCSK9 inhibitors in the cardio-metabolic world. Amgen has one of the products, and Regeneron/Sanofi-Aventis have the other one. We both got FDA marketing approval on the basis of our ability to dramatically lower a surrogate biomarker – LDL cholesterol. The FDA highly encouraged both manufacturer groups to complete outcomes trials to show the true, if any, impact on real world mortality in heart attacks and strokes, for example. Both organizations have initiated large prospective outcomes trials with about a total of forty five thousand patients between them. For example, on Regeneron side, it's a 5 year outcomes trial for 19,000 patients. However, there has been talk that if there is a clear benefit signal early in the trial, that the FDA may be OK with that and allow that outcomes data to be published and change the product label. We may follow the patients after that point, but the FDA and the manufacturers will get what they feel they needed from the trial data. Anyway, if the FDA calls the trial a success and allows us to proclaim we have a clear benefit in MACE, earlier than the actual end of the trial – does that constitute p-hacking? Thanks Heath Bonner Arlington, TX

Science or Fiction (1:04:38)

Item #1: By studying an owl’s wing, engineers have designed an attachment that can reduce the noise generated by existing wind turbines by 10 decibels. Item #2: Researchers have demonstrated an ultra-long-lasting oral drug delivery mechanism that can last for 14 days on a single dose. Item #3: Astronomers have discovered for the first time a star that is not detectably rotating.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:25:55)

'They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.' Terry Pratchett

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.