SGU Episode 77

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SGU Episode 77
January 10th 2007
Polar bear.jpg
SGU 76 SGU 78
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
SW: Spencer Weart
Quote of the Week
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny."
Isaac Asimov
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

News Items (0:57)[edit]

Enviga (1:00)[edit]

  • Coke claims new product has 'negative calories'

FTC Fines Weight Loss Pill Firms (7:20)[edit]


Hawking in Space (9:55)[edit]


Questions and E-mails (15:12)[edit]

Corrections and Clarifications (15:15)[edit]

900 Foot Jesus

The 900 Foot Jesus was seen by the Reverend Oral Roberts in the 1980s. He believed that if he didn't raise enough money, that Jesus would take him away. Unfortunately, he raised the money he needed, and we'll never know if Jesus would have taken him away.

William Brinkman
United States


Dr. Novella,

I have really enjoyed your show over the last year and a half. It just seems to be getting better every show. However, I believe that you may be misinformed (at least partially) on the action of capsaicin. There are receptors in primary sensory nerves that are sensitive to capsaicin called TRPV1. The sense of pain from hot peppers is not due to death of neurons.

Here is the wiki on capsaicin:


Nature 389, 816 - 824 (23 October 1997)

Thanks again for a great show!

Jason Rall

Article indicating that both the pain and subsequent relief are at least partially due to the death of neurons.
Topical capsaicin in humans: parallel loss of epidermal nerve fibers and pain sensation. Pain. 1999 May;81(1-2):135-45.

Shoot the Moon (18:12)[edit]

Hi Guys,
Only a 'baboon' could mistake the Moon for a UFO huh? Well I'm delighted to be able to supply solid video evidence against this outragous notion! Being able to back up Rebecca, too, just makes it all the sweeter!

Rebecca: you are absolutely correct, and if I were you, I wouldn't be putting up with such close-minded thinking!

You see, a number of years ago, 2002 I think, I was intending to film the Moon as it rose above the River Tay, in Scotland for a small movie project known as 'being bored in charge of a video camera.'

What I filmed was this:

I didn't think I was going to get anything at all because of the clouds, but a small break in the cloud did indeed appear at the right time. Now because the clouds were appearing in streaks, only the centre portion of the Moon was visible. Chopping the top and bottom of off the moon meant that only a rectangular portion in the middle was actually visible. And because there was evidently a large amount of dust in the atmosphere at the time, the result was bright red. The whole apparation lasted for a few minutes.

Now I know full well that this was the Moon; I'd planned for it at that place and that time using some astronomy software. I defy anyone to have casually glanced at this apparently bright red rectangle hovering over the river for a minute and immediately thought of the Moon!

Anyway, thanks for the podcasts which keep me entertained on my walks to work in the morning!

Steve Hammond

P.S. Always amusing when someone across the pond attempts a Scottish accent!

True Believer Skeletons (24:27)[edit]

Heya guys (non-gender specific from where I'm from), let me begin by saying that not only is your podcast 'numero uno' in my opinion but that you are without a doubt the greatest collective of skeptic minds that I have been exposed to in my lifetime.

My question for you however is about not so skeptical beliefs that you may have held previously in your lifetime. Are there any major psuedoscientific or 'true believer' style notions that you have given credence to or truly believed yourselves in the past? Come on guys be honest, and I'm not talking about Santa Claus-esque fantasies, were any of you believers in psychics, dowsing, extra-terrestrial visitations, ESP etc?

Christian Polson-Brown
Perth, Australia

Interview with Spencer Weart (35:55)[edit]

  • Dr. Weart is the author of the book The Discovery of Global Warming.
    He is also the Director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland, USA. Originally trained as a physicist, he is now a noted historian specializing in the history of modern physics and geophysics.

    His site, a complete history of the controversies:
    with a links page:

    NOAA says 2006 warmest on record for US, partly due to the 'long-term warming trend, which has been linked to increases in greenhouse gases':

    Professional climate scientists' blog on current news and

    Union of Concerned Scientists report on Exxonmobil's publicity campaign and lobbying:

    An institution leading denial since the 1980s, although even they now admit that 'the climate change risk is real':

Randi Speaks (55:38)[edit]

  • The Uncompromising Observations of a Veteran Skeptic

    Each week James Randi gives a skeptical commentary in his own unique style.

    This week's topic: Coincidence

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. Today I'd like to talk to you a little bit about coincidence. I'm often asked about the subject; people say to me, "how can you possibly explain..." and then they give me some coincidence that they've experienced in their lives or, more frequently, that somebody else has told them about. My brief response to such an inquiry is that if a remarkable coincidence or two didn't happen to you every now and then, that in itself would be remarkable. But as you well know, people just don't seem to understand statistics or probability. Many years ago my good friend Martin Gardner told me about a column he had done for Scientific American, one of the regular columns that he supplied them with during his heyday, and this was an April 1st column, so they should have been ready for it, but readers really weren't. Martin introduced his fictitious character—at least one hopes fictitious—Dr. Matrix. And he told readers that during an interview with Dr. Matrix, he had been told that the millionth digit of pi was five. This fact had been arrived at by Dr. Matrix, or so he claimed, by numerology and astrology; a good combination, I'm sure you'll agree. Well, that column was published in Scientific American, and it caused the usual number of chuckles and also some silly letters saying "how do you do this by numerology and astrology", but we can bypass those. The really remarkable result was that a mathematician at MIT wrote to Martin a couple of years after the column had appeared and said, "guess what? We put it into the computer and lo and behold, the millionth digit of pi is five." What are the chances? Exactly one in ten. Of course, it depends on where you start counting places of decimals: after the "3." or beginning with the three. There are several possibilities of error and... let's say... variations here.

My paternal grandfather was very fond of telling me a story—not a personal story in this case, but one that he said had happened to a friend of his who worked at the same company where he did. This friend said that he rear-ended a car—I believe they were both Fords. And when they exchanged pertinent information, they found out that, wow, the cars that had collided were in exactly the same relationship that they'd been on the assembly line many years before, because the vehicle identification numbers were consecutive. Now I don't know if this was true; I don't know that granddad knew whether or not it was really true. But suppose for a moment that it was true. In the first place, cars even, aside from trucks or bicycles or motorcycles, were not specified when looking for this coincidence. Consecutive license plate numbers or drivers' license numbers would have been equally acceptable, I'm sure, as a remarkable coincidence. So we have to consider that, again, if this was actually true, there are manypossibilities for it to be true, because we haven't defined the parameters in advance.

Recently I made mention on Swift of the fact that many media personalities have fallen for the woo-woo stuff. Glenn Beck of CNN certainly fell for John Edward's line of nonsense just recently. I pointed out that Katie Couric, formerly with the NBC Today Show, accepted John Edward as well. And Diane Rehm of PBS—NPR I should say, more correctly—has certainly fallen for this sort of thing several times in her interviews. But during a repeat visit of Edward's to the NBC Today show while Katie Couric was there, he told her something really remarkable that she considered to be remarkable too. He said that during his previous appearance there, she had denied that she had a brother who had committed suicide, or some statement equally pertinent. Edward revealed that he had done a bit of research. Parking his car a couple of months after that, he had been approached by a parking attendant who told him that Edward had obviously been picking up on his vibrations because his brother had committed suicide. And, said Edward, it was remarkable because, if you drew a direct line through Edward and Katie Couric to where the parking lot was, half a mile away in Manhattan, it would come to just the place where this parking attendant was working. Folks, when you've got people believing crap like this, you don't have a hard time being a psychic. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (1:01:03)[edit]

Question #1: Men are struck by lightening four times as often as women. Question #2: Since people have been putting artificial satellites into orbit, over 40 satellites have been damaged or destroyed by meteors. Question #3: The crack of a whip is made by the tip exceeding the speed of sound, causing a small sonic boom Question #4: Russian scientists thawed out a salamander they believe to have been frozen for 90 years, and it was still alive.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:08:22)[edit]

This Week's Puzzle
I have something that was said to have existed in the first century
That was first written about in the eighth century
That was actually produced in the 14th century
That was almost destroyed in the 16th century
And proven to be a hoax in the 20th century
What do I have?

Last Week's Puzzle
I read red lines on a white background
But occasionally, the background is not white
I interpret stress patterns
But by nature, I struggle to stay upright
I analyze vessels and the directions they travel
But their movements mean nothing
And though its lone job is to protect you
I have the power to see beyond this purpose

What is my profession?

Mike from the SGU boards was the first to give the correct answer

Quote of the Week (1:10:21)[edit]

'The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny.'- Isaac Asimov

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website, or you can send us an email to'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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