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SGU Episode 780
June 20th 2020
[[|link=|center|200px]]
SGU 779 SGU 781
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria


Quote of the Week
'Science is elegant and beautiful, but it requires an effort to understand. This is a golden opportunity to educate people. Any person with a scientific temperament, not necessarily a scientist, cannot support these types of messages.'
Hasan Al Hariri, CEO of the Dubai Astronomy Group, when asked about the June 21, 2020, doomsday insanity[1]
Links
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


Introduction[edit]

Voiceover: 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 Wednesday, Jun 17th, 2020, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!

C: Good evening!

S: So the world continues to simmer along. (Rogues laugh) With all of the things—

C: —Just barely.

S: —that are happening—

E: —A week-to-week assessment.

S: Yeah, we were doing the COVID-19 update because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but then the Black Lives Matter issue has exploded for good reason, and that deserves a lot of attention as well. We’ve actually been getting a lot of questions about some of the science and critical thinking issues surrounding the protests that are happening and statistics, etc., and studies that have been coming out. So we’re going to address those in the Email and Questions section because I think that’s a good way to deal with those issues, by answer questions and being a little bit more interactive.

J: And since that happens to be in our sweet spot, we might as well dig in.

S: Yeah, yeah. And we’ve been talking about, like, what should we be talking about when all this big, world-changing stuff is happening around us? We can’t just talk about narrow news stories. We want to do what we do best. We want to contribute what we feel is in our sweet spot, as you say, Jay, which is let’s talk about the science, the evidence, the critical thinking. And maybe, hopefully, raise the level of discourse a little bit if we can do that.

COVID-19 Update (1:44)[edit]

S: So the quick COVID-19 update. Again, it seems like it’s accelerating. Like, there’s just so many news items with it. One thing that’s interesting that I wrote about earlier in the week is that—and we’ve had a number of these questions—what was the effect of the lockdown on the flu season?

B: Yeah! Great question!

C: Oh, interesting! I think it would help, right?

B: Yeah! Absolutely.

S: And now we have some data. And, of course, it depends on where you are in the world. The COVID-19 hit the US at the tail end of the flu season. This flu season was a particularly bad one; it was at the upper end of the typical range.

E: Was there an issue with the vaccinations, or—

S: —No. No, there wasn’t.

E: —they just weren’t as effective?

S: No, their vaccine was actually fine this year. It wasn’t the vaccine; it was just a bad flu season.

C: Interesting.

E: Hmm.

S: Yeah. There [were] between 20,000 and 60,000 deaths in the US, which—

B: —Well, which was it? 20 or 60—I mean, that’s a huge range, man.

C: (laughs) That’s a wide number, yeah. Epidemiology.

S: 290,000 to 650,000 globally. So the reason for the range is because—

B: —Did it kill the person or not?

S: No, no, no. Most people who get the flu don’t get a flu test, and so, then, you have to infer—

B: —That’s right.

S: —so, clinically, did they have the flu? So if you count just laboratory-confirmed cases, that’s at the low end. And if you count probable clinical cases, that’s at the high end. So—

C: —I don’t think I’ve ever had a flu test. I get a vaccine ever year, but I don’t think I've ever gone to the doctor and [have] them actually test me for the flu. They just say, "Oh, you probably have the flu."

S: Exactly. Exactly.

E: So the high number’s the extrapolation of what is likely?

C: It’s based on [inaudible].

S: Based upon—

E: —Infection rate.

S: —Yeah, if you go to your doctor and say, "I have the flu," and they treat you for the flu, that counts, even if they didn’t do a laboratory test to confirm it was actually the influenza virus.

B, C, E: Right.

S: So that’s why there’s a range.

B: I don’t think should even state the low end, then, 'cause it’s clearly wrong, clearly.

C: (laughs) Yeah.

S: Well, whatever. They could be—

E: —There has to be a floor. They want you know it wasn’t zero.

C: We’re basically just showing the error bars. Like, "It’s somewhere in this range."

S: This is a sideshow, guys. Let me get to what we’re actually talking about. So you’re right—

B: —Sometimes a sideshow’s really fascinating!

(Rogues laugh)

C: Story of our lives.

S: —So if you graph out the numbers of infected, of hospitalizations, and of deaths, it typically peaks [in] January, February, and trails off through May. But this year, basically, it ended five weeks early.

C: Oh, wow!

S: The lockdown—

B: —Killed it!

S:completely shut down the flu season.

B: Cut it off at the knees.

C: But you would hope it would.

J: But Steve, I don’t want to sound like a jerk right now, but no shit!

C: Yeah. Exactly. (laughs)

S: But, Jay, it isn’t "no shit" because think about it: people are questioning whether or not the lockdown was effective, and this is an independent piece of evidence that, yeah, it’s effective! It actually does keep viruses from spreading around, not just COVID-19, but also the flu season. As you say, it should have worked, but it’s nice to know that it actually did.

B: And Jay, don’t forget, a lot of people were saying, "Well, if this coronavirus is so bad, why don’t we take similar measures with bad flu seasons?" And a lot of people were thinking, "Yeah! Maybe we should take it more seriously because that’s a lot of people that die every year. And here is more proof, then, that if we did take it a little bit more seriously, especially in a bad flu season, and do something akin—not a full on lockdown, but just be more careful with touching your face and maybe even more masks—we could cut those numbers down as well for the annual flu.

S: Exactly, Bob. Exactly.

C: Yeah, Bob, wouldn’t it be great if human behavior changed, [if] the biggest thing that came out of this is that people actually follow their own advice and decide not to go to work when they’re feeling sick or not send their kids to school when they’re feeling sick.

E: I think handshakes are done.

C: Yeah, I think so, too.

E: Or if not, severely curtailed. So there are behaviors that are going to change probably forever as a result of this.

S: I think so.

E: And that’s good.

S: And I hope in a good way. So, Bob, I think you’re absolutely right. And think about it: if 60,000 people died this flu season in the US from the flu, or 400,000 died worldwide, it wouldn’t have made headlines.

B: No.

S: There would’ve been zero discussion about it because we’ve become complacent because it happens every year.

C: Yeah, we’re used to it.

S: And this it not to say that we needed to respond this way to COVID-19 because if we hadn’t, there would’ve been—

B: —A nightmare. More of a nightmare.

C: Oh gosh.

S: —hundreds of thousands more deaths in the US and millions of deaths in the world. It would’ve been much, much worse. But, at the other end, I do think it absolutely means maybe we shouldn’t be so complacent about the flu. And maybe we could take some of the skills that we’re learning, collectively, as a society, and apply that to the flu season. So, if people were, as you say, Cara, if you’re sick, don’t go to work! Don’t send—

C: —I know! People do it all the time, though!

S: —don’t send your kid to [school]! Wear masks! During the high—if you’re going to be in [tightly-packed] public places during flu season, wear a mask. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face.

C: Don’t fly sick!

S: Don’t fly—exactly! And maybe we need to think carefully about how we just arrange our big social events so that we’re not creating petri dishes all over the place. And maybe coming out of this, we will be better able to treat those flu season because people are more ready to do it, because basically they’ve just mostly been ignoring the CDC every year when it comes to flattening the curve of the flu. The one other little thing is that when we’re counting—we’re trying to calculate the risk versus benefit of the economic shutdown. There’s a lot of things other than COVID-19 deaths that we have to consider on both ends of the equation. But, at the very least, we have to count tens of thousands of people saved from dying of the flu. That counts as well.

C: Oh, you’re right. That’s an economic benefit.

S: Yeah, totally.

C: Interesting. Yeah, I don’t think a lot people think about that.

S: But, again, there’s things on both sides. So the economic shutdown is not benign either. So, clearly, we can’t do this every year. And that was one thing I [inaudible]. How often can we do this? It might 20 years before we could really weather another shutdown like this.

E: Gosh. Maybe. Maybe.

C: Which sucks because I doubt it’ll be 20 years before another —

S: —I know! So what is—

C: —epidemic or pandemic.

S: —That means we need sustainable strategies for mitigating epidemics and pandemics so that we don’t ever have to shut down our economy like this again.

C: And they to be organized. You know, there’s a great—I sound like a broken record—the newest frontline, which just came out yesterday or the day before on pbs, is—I think it’s called something like "Coronavirus: What Went Wrong"—and it’s all about countries that handled it well, countries that didn’t, all the missteps that we made with the CDC, which missteps are with the WHO. It’s actually really well done. They’ve researched a lot of, like, "What did we f- up this time so we could do better next time?"

E: Look, if we don’t learn from these mistakes, we are just doing ourselves the greatest disservice [to] humanity. If we—

C: Yeah, and it shows. You see South Korea doing so well because they dealt with SARS and then MERS. And they just had—they were like, "We ain’t gonna let this happen again."

S: Yeah.

C: And they were—they just had this amazingly rapid response. And we could do that, too. I think you’re so right, Steve, that we’ve been complacent. I also wonder if some of the behavior, like the psychological drive behind these behavioral issues is that the people who are most affected are also the people who are most hidden in society, so, like, the elderly, who are often living in nursing homes or don’t go out in public as often, people who are low-SES, who are struggling—they’re sort of not as elevated or visible in society, And so I think it’s easy to just get complacent and forget about it being a problem because if you ask most kind of middle- to upper-middle class people in America, like, "Hey, isn’t the flu dangerous?" They’re like, "The flu doesn’t kill people."

S: Yeah. It’s true.

C: They’re like, "I’ve never met anybody who the flu as killed." And it’s like, "Well, you’re lucky, then."

S: It’s probably not true, also.

C: Yeah. Probably not.

S: Here are the numbers. So about 8.4 million cases worldwide, 450,000 deaths, over 115,000 deaths in the US. So, still, we’re sort of—overall in the US, the numbers are starting to come down, but it’s very state-by-state. And here’s the thing: we’re starting to get—again, it’s not clear if people should call this a surge, a second wave, a resurgence, or whatever. But there are a number of states that are really peaking now. Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina, Alabama, Oregon, Florida are all having these peaks. I think Arizona’s the worst right now.

E: Interesting.

C: Yeah, Texas, too.

E: Mostly the southern states.

S: And it relates to their behavior.

E: Geographics.

S: It relates to the regulations in those states. I mean, it’s pretty clear.

C: They opened up faster and more vigorously.

S: Yeah.

C: I think we’re at a point now where our number, our infection rate is just exceeding all of western Europe combined.

S: Yeah. We’re still very much in the middle of the first wave of this pandemic.

E: Hmm. That’s the—

S: —People have this overall sense that, "Ah, it’s over." And they’re trying to go back to business as usual. But, no, you look at the numbers. It’s still—we’re in the middle of this, still.

C: Well, and that’s what shows. We kind of discussed this a little on Friday, but it just goes to show a basic misunderstanding about the mechanics of a virus. We’re nowhere near herd immunity. We don’t have a really good treatment yet, although there is that steroid that people have been talking about that seems to be showing promise. We don’t have a vaccine. What reason do we think that we are now more protected than we were before. We’re just not.

S: Right. Yeah. Right. Exactly.

C: It’s just complacency and laziness.

J: What’s basically changed is that the places where the virus was smacking hard have lessened significantly, and now it’s just moved to other states.

C: No, it’s still in those place. That’s the thing. The places where the virus smacked really hard got their shit together and shut down more severely. And the places that never shut down or that did shut down but go, "Hey, I don’t see a problem. Nothing every happened here." (whispering) "Because you were shut down!"—just loosened everything up and now they’re getting hit hard.

S: They’re getting hit.

C: The virus is everywhere. It’s not going away until we can vaccinate against it or until enough people get it that we’re not going to catch it again.

S: Yeah. And that’s the final thing. I do hope that in addition to wearing masks being more socially acceptable, even required, going forward during flu season or whatever, hopefully support for things like vaccines will be much higher. I’d like to see the compliance rate could be much higher with the flu vaccine. Maybe if and when we do develop a COVID-19 vaccine, I wonder if they can pair it with the flu vaccine. And if they were given at the same time, would the compliance with the flu vaccine go up?

C: Oh, interesting. But it’s also interesting how many people are already writing about and doing studies about—there’s already vaccine resistance to the non-existent COVID vaccine.

S: Oh yeah. Right.

E: Steve, in the news recently, they’re talking about steroids helping reduce the—

S: —Yeah, Cara brought that up.

C: That’s a new one, yeah.

S: There’s dexamethasone, which is a powerful intravenous steroid. There was a study which showed that it might decrease the death rate in the sickest people. So, essentially, some infections during parts of the infection—it’s the inflammatory response that does the damage. And so, especially with viruses, the question is—like with some bacteria, it releases toxins, and the infection itself is doing all the harm—with viral infections, often it’s the body’s immune and inflammatory response that actually does the harm. It’s the inflammation. And so the question is—

C: —It’s like when people refer to cytokine storms, Steve, that’s often what’s happening?

S: Yeah, that’s part of it. The cytokine storm is at the end of the sickest patients when things just shut down. But if you give steroids to shut down the inflammation, what will happen? It will sort of reduce the damage from the inflammation, but it also lets the infection go unchecked. And so there’s a balancing act there. And so you have to study it with every virus, every type of infection, and maybe even different phases of the infection. There’s some types of meningitis, for example, where steroids are helpful; other types of meningitis where steroids will kill you. It totally depends on the specific infection. But it was reasonable to study it in COVID-19 because when people are really sick, the virus and the inflammation are just ravaging their organs, especially their lungs. So it was reasonable idea. So they’re saying, "Okay, if we use steroids when, basically, the game is otherwise over, the inflammation is just destroying their organs, can this save some people?" And the preliminary evidence is positive, but, of course, we need to study it a little bit more carefully.

C: I mean, that’s good news for the sickest people. It’s good to hear because the scary part of this virus is what it does to people when they’re already on the ventilator. Like by the time they get there, it doesn’t look good.

S: Yeah. It’s incremental. It’s not a game-changer, but I think that overall, doctors are just getting incrementally better at treating COVID-19. And I think that’s probably a big reason why the death rate is going down faster than the infection rate is. I think we’re just getting better at jumping on people who are sick, testing them, treating them.

C: Yeah, and probably people are getting treated earlier, too.

J: So the bottom line is: we are still within the pandemic. Tell your friends and family that you can, "Be mindful. Don’t let your guard down. We have to keep the protocols high and active." That’s it.

S: Yeah. That’s it. We need endurance at this point and discipline. Otherwise, we may look back at this and think, "Argh. This again was an opportunity where we let it get away from us." And we’re going to be paying for it down the road.

News Items[edit]

S: All right. We’ll muddle along.

Brain on a Chip (16:05)[edit]

S: Jay, you’re going to start the News Item segment by telling us about this new brain on a chip.

J: So engineers at MIT have designed a brain on a chip that is actually smaller than a piece of confetti.

E: All right, you have to define "brain" for us, Jay. Go ahead.

J: Yeah. Well, here we go. It’s kind of like a brain. So it’s made up of tens of thousands of silicon-based brain synapses known as memristors. Memristors.

E: Memor—what—

J: —That’s a portmanteau.

E: —resistor?

C: Resistor, but memory?

J: Memory transistors.

B: Memristor’s a portmanteau of memory and resistor.

C: Ah! I was right. It’s resistor, not transistor.

J: Oh, I’m sorry. And resistor. You’re right, Bob. So the engineers published the results of their research in the journal Nature, Nanotechnology, and I just like the fact that we’re [in] an age where we have journals that are named with the word "nanotechnology" in them, and it’s legit.

E: Yeah, well, Nature, Phrenology kind of closed awhile ago, so…

B: Yeah, they’ve been out for a while, man.

J: Keep in mind that there have been many advances in this exact area, right? And this is just another incremental advancement that was made with memristors out of alloys of silver, copper, and silicon. Now, previous versions were made with un-alloyed elements and didn’t function as well as the new one. And that is, basically, it as its core, but let me give you come of the details because there’s some cool stuff that they’re doing here.

So, memristors are called neuromorphic devices, which means they mimic the human brain’s neural architecture. "Neuro-morphic." I love that. A "neuromorph." That could’ve been one of our patrons' names, right, Bob? These connections are an essential component in neuromorphic computing. So even though it serves as a [resistor] in a circuit, it’s actually a lot more like a real human brain synapse. It’s the connection between two neurons, right? That’s really what this memory transistor is doing. [Jay describes transistors, forgetting that memristors are not close to transistors, but rather to resistors.] In a traditional transistor, you either have on or off. And when we think, "What does an actual synapse do?" A synapse isn’t on or off. A synapse has to do with the amplitude or the volume of the signal that’s coming through. And they were—

C: —Yeah, but it becomes all or nothing. That’s how neurons work.

S: In a way, Cara.

C: There’s a threshold. There’s a cutoff. [inaudible]

S: There’s a threshold effect, and the neuron either fires or not, but what really makes a difference is the frequency at which the neuron fires. Is it firing fast or slow? And that’s analog.

C: That’s true.

S: So, yeah, each individual firing is all or nothing, but the rate at which it fires—that’s the variable. And that’s something a lot of people don’t know. They think, "Oh, the signal goes through. The neuron just fires once." No, it’s like—

C: —No, they fire—

S: —it’s a train of firing. In that way, the signal’s analog. So this is a way—the memristor’s a way of doing the same thing where it’s not just on or off. It’s not a 1 or a 0. It’s a range in between.

J: A memristor could send a varying strength of signal depending on the strength of the signal received. It kind of just repeats the signal that it’s got.

C: Yeah, so that is really similar, actually.

J: This makes it function more like a real synapse, and if you think of that like the difference between on or off—which, essentially, is two options—a memristor would have many, many more options, making its possible range of operations much bigger. So another interesting thing is that a memristor would be able to remember a value that was associated with a particular signal strength and re-create the same, exact signal the next time it receives that specific signal. And that’s where this thing dives into super complexity because when you have—

C: —Because it can learn?

J: Well, yeah, it’s able to have memory, which—I’m sure, physically, it’s got memory. But I guess what they’re saying is when it gets the same strength of signal, it’ll access the memory that it had. Kind of replicating what’s going on in the brain, in a way. I guess this—

C: —Yeah, sort of, at the synaptic level, it’s replicating it.

J: Yeah. So previous memristors designs—they didn’t use alloys, like I said before. And they had a problem with ions that would flow through them, actually wandering off track and getting kind of lost. So it’s kind of like thinking about a hose that has water going through it, and there’s a little dribble of a hole that’s letting water out, and some of the water gets lost. Well, that water is crucial. Why?

C: It’s funny because that happens all the freakin' time in the brain or in body cells. (laughs) That’s exactly how cells work.

J: They’re trying to get it so the accuracy is there. It’s consistent because when, like the hose, when water leaks out, then the amount of water going from point A to point B is not the correct amount, which isn’t soliciting the correct response or reaction by everything else around it. It’s a little complicated, but—

C: —It is, but the funny thing is, I’ll be impressed when it still works, even though it’s leaky as hell, which is how our brains are. (laughs)

J: Well, let’s get at close to perfection as we can first, and then we’ll let it get freaky [?]. So they’re calling it signal strength. So when some of these ions get lost, the signal strength drops, and then that was a problem because things weren’t predictable and weren’t acting in a way that they wanted. So the engineers looked to known metallurgy techniques to solve the problem, which was genius, if you think about it. So they figured out that copper was the right metal to add to the silver and silicon mixture. So now they—

E: —"That’s right, copper!" (James Cagney voice?)

J: "That’s right, copper!"

C: (laughs)

E: [inaudible]

J: And because they knew from metallurgy techniques, they knew that copper would help retain the ions inside the flow. And, you know what? It worked. So the researchers said that "in performance tests, the new hardware worked better than its predecessors" and they were able to do a lot of really cool things with them working much better. You know, they were using it to sharpen an out-of-focus image, which I thought was really cool. This is not truly novel because software programmers have already created artificial synapse networks with software, right? But that is just not the same. And the research team wants to build a physical neural network that’s hardware-based.

So this could be used, when they really get this slick, as a portable artificial intelligence system. Now, I don’t think it’s going to—it’s not going to be conscious. Let me explain what this means. This would come in handy, [as] an example, if you would want to operate without an internet connection. Like today, you talk into your phone and it tells you—it types out what you said. Your phone can’t do that. Your phone is sending what you’re saying to their server farm with really amazing software on the other end that’s translating what you’re saying and sending back the translation, right? It’s not happening on your phone.

B: I didn’t say they could do that!

C: Yes you did when you checked that box.

B: Oh shit.

C & E: (laughs)

J: Well this is considered—

E: —I didn’t read all that.

J: —this is considered heavy processing. Why would you want everybody’s phone to have to even come—they couldn’t. Your phone couldn’t handle the amount of processing that needs to be done to do this. It’s very smart, from a software perspective, to have all the phones be sending back to the main server. The main server has all the juice to do the processing and then just gives you back the answer; that’s fine. But there are circumstances where you want things to happen super fast, and you don’t want to be relying on the internet. Like, for smart cars as an example, you want cameras on a smart car to be able to see something and get an instantaneous, a millisecond response, which you can’t get fast enough over the internet. [So] then you have to do it locally. And this would be the way that they would be able to take that super dense and process-heavy computations locally and shrink them down so we can have them in a computer that’s in your car or your cellphone or handheld devices at some point.

So, they’re calling it "having a resident neural network," and they’re saying that it would be independent from the internet. It would operate in real time, as opposed to having to wait to get the response back from some server somewhere. If the internet goes down and the space shuttle or the dragon capsule is using this, they’re screwed. You know what I mean?

C: Right.

J: So you have the intelligence onboard. So, it’s an incremental move. It’s really cool because they were able to make a milestone change here, even though it didn’t lurch things forward so much that we should be like, "Hey, five to ten [years]!" Nobody’s saying five to ten on this. But I find it interesting because as we mimic human brain—as we kind of reverse engineer what the brain is doing, and we’re pulling more and more pieces out that they’re going to try to fit into this hardware, what are we going to get? And will there be—I put it to all of you guys—will there be some type of emergent consciousness?

(ur): Ermergerd!

(ur): Ermergerd!

J: Ermergerd!

Twistronics (25:04)[edit]

S: So the next news item which I want to cover is also about kind of a narrow, technical thing, but I thought this was just too cool not to mention. Have any of you heard the word "twistronics?"

J: Not yet. No.

C: No, not at all.

E: Nooo.

S: Twistronics.

B: I think I did.

E: Sounds like a video game.

S: Yeah. So it’s like this entirely new technology, which could—

E:(laughs) Entirely new?

S: —could come to nothing, could transform our technological world.

C: (laughs) You know, one or the other!

E: I’ll take four of them!

S: This is going to be quick. This is what it is in a nutshell. You take a two-dimensional material—

J: —That is cool, Steve! I mean, who would think of that?

E: Two-dimensional material, okay.

S: —Like—

J: —Paper.

S: —Like graphene—

C: Paper?

(crosstalk)

S: The graphene is a two-dimensional material made of carbon, where you have chicken-wire, hexagonal configuration, right?

E: I love it. Like a hex map, yeah!

S: Yeah, exactly.

J: (laughs) Ev…

S: And this has—we’ve been talking for years about the fact that these two-dimensional materials and these graphene materials have really interesting properties in terms of their conduction of electricity, their conduction of heat, their strength. They’re lightweight. You could make nano-fibers out of them, nano-tubes, all kinds of things. You can dope them with other material to alter their properties. And this has been—

C: Ooo. "Dope" them.

S: —a very, very active in material science research over the last decade. And we’re starting to see applications at the basic end, like mixing little nano-fibers, these carbon nano-fibers, into materials so that it’s stronger, for example. But we’ve had a hard time manufacturing it at a massive industrial scale, especially at the level of quality that we need because even one kink or rip or whatever could really destroy the physical properties, right? It could unzip. So researchers have been researching what happens when you take two sheets of graphene and then you rotate them or twist them slightly relative to each other—

J: —So they touch each other in certain places? Is that what you’re saying?

S: No, it’s more that—so you lay them directly on top of each other, but then one is rotated with respect to the other. So they’re not—

C: —Oh, so there’s almost a cross-hatch pattern.

S: Yeah, exactly.

J: Okay.

B: That’s cool.

E: Oh, you double, triple, quadruple the strength or something?

S: So theorists predicted that there might be a magic angle. And that at that magic angle, really new physics may happen. It’s kind of like a meta-material, right, Bob?

B: Yay, new physics! Yes.

S: Yeah.

E & C: (laughs)

C: Got his attention!

S: And then in 2018, the experimental physicists demonstrated that the magic angle actually exists. It’s 1.1º, so it’s a very, very small angle.

C: Whoa!

S: So if you take two sheets of graphene and you rotate them with respect to each other by 1.1º, then it becomes—what do you guess?

E: Ten times?

C: Yeah, ten times as strong.

S: —becomes a superconductor.

(Rogues express amazement.)

C: No way!

S: A superconductor—

J: Whoa. Wait, wait. A legit superconductor?

S:legit superconductor—

B: —But what temperature, though?

S: —one of the holy grails of materials science.

B: What temperature?

C: Still super cold?

S: It’s a superconductor up to 1.7K.

C & B: (laughs)

E: Up to 1.7K. That’s cold.

S: Yeah, that’s cold.

B: So, kind of hovering very close to absolute zero.

S: Yeah, but it’s more about the proof of concept—

B: —Yes…

S: —than anything else.

B: And who knows? They may be able to tweak that, but just learning that such a simple thing can create a superconductor can explode our knowledge on superconductors in general.

S: So it’s tunable. Basically, the resistance is tunable by twisting the layers. The recent study that was done, though, extended this one notch. They looked at the graphene, but they included in it molybdenum trioxide.

C: Molybdenun.

S: Molybdenum.

B: (mumbling and stumbling with the word)

S: Or "moly" trioxide. And with this two-dimensional material, they were able to make it a superconductor of light. But not only that—

E: Oh!

B: —Wait, what does that mean?

C: I don’t know.

S: Okay. This is what it means. So normally light would basically propagate in every direction, would diffract quite a bit, but what they found at the magic angle: [if] light traveled in straight lines without diffracting, it would propagate in just a single direction. So why would that be important? That would be important because this could, potentially, be useful for photonics.

B: Communication.

S: For basically using electrical devices—electronic devices—but with light instead of electrons.

B: Right.

E: Oh. Everything’s fiberoptic at that [inaudible].

S: No, not fiberoptic. This is not just for information. This is photonics. This is like your computer—

B: —Your computer running on photons instead of electrons.

S: —running on photons instead of electrons, exactly.

B: That’s what I said.

C: Cool!

E: The actual [inaudible]. Think beyond the connection. Think the…

S: It’s photon’'ic versus electronic. Think about it that way.

J: (sing-songs) Photonic!

C: Cool. Is anything photonic right now?

B: I think so…

S: I don’t know if there’s any actual application. It’s more of a research thing because—again, we’re trying to find materials that will allow us to control light with enough precision—

C: —Man, that’s cool!

S: —in order to make a device out of it. So this is, again, along those lines.

E: What’s the byproduct?

B: Efficiency and speed, I think, because imagine this: I’m not only operating at the speed of light—

S: —It’s much less [inaudible]

B: —Right, and that’s because the photons don’t interact. They go right through each other, whereas electrons do!

C: Yeah. They line up in a little line.

B: You could be crossing the streams as much as you want, and you’re not going to get any of the interference that you would get with electrons, so that’s huge.

S: Right. So a theoretical photonic device would be faster, smaller, and cooler than an equivalent electronic device.

C: And you mean temperature-cooler, not just like cooler?

S: Yes. Temperature-cooler.

E: Well, both, actually.

B: Generically cooler.

S: It’s important if you’re trying to implant a device in your brain, for example. You don’t want it to produce any waste heat. And the smaller and faster is also important as well. So implantable devices might be one of the target applications for a photonic, computational device, for example. So that’s basically it. This is an incremental advance. It’s a proof-of-concept thing. And it’s just opening up this new world of tuning the physical properties of these two-dimensional materials simply by manipulating the twisted angle of one layer on top of another. And there are these magic angles where new physics happens. And, again, we’re at the very, very beginning of this. In 30 years, this will be a laboratory curiosity, or it will transform our technology. It’s hard to say.

B: Yeah. Now, Steve, do you consider this a meta-material?

S: It is considered a meta-material.

B: Okay. It makes sense.

E: Does it lose its 2-D definition when it becomes twisted, when you start layering these things?

S: No, no.

E: It’s still considered 2-D?

S: Still 2-D. Yeah, still considered two-dimensional.

C: Still flatter than paper!

S: So, Bob, what do you think is—

B: [inaudible] One!

S: —the important force at work at that scale between the two twisted two-dimensional layers.

B: Van der Waals?

S: Very good! Excellent.

B: Yeah, baby!

S: Van der Waals. That is it. That’s the same force that’s—

B: —Gecko!

S: —Yeah, gecko. It’s a very close [inaudible] like between surfaces or between particles, etc. It also deals with a polariton—Bob, do you know what a polariton is?

B: I have heard of them, yes, I have.

S: It’s a quasi-particle that emerges—

B: —Quasi-particle. Kind of like a hole, almost, right? Some of these quasi-particles—

S: —Quasi-particles are not real particles. They’re just phenomena that behave like particles because they can move and track and whatever, but—so it’s a quasi-particle that emerges when you excite a photon. So they’re also important. The polaritons, I think, are what are being propagated in the single direction through the twisted two-dimensional material. And it’s anisotropic, which I believe was one of our words, wasn’t it, Cara? Anisotropic?[v 1]

B: Ooo.

C: Umm… maybe.

S: It just means that it has different properties in different directions or different configurations.

B: Yeah.

C: Yes! It was. It was. It was. We talked about being high on a mountain, and—

S: —As opposed to isotropic, where it’s the same in every direction.

C: Mmhmm. Uh, it sounds like you’re just making a lot of this up, but that’s science. (laughs)

B: No. I’m backing him up. It’s not bullshit.

(Rogues laugh)

C: It’s like there is that line for the naive listener, who’s like, "Is this sci-fi?" It’s almost sci-fi.

S: Oh, you want sci-fi, Cara? Here’s the actual article, okay? Listen to this.

C: Uh-oh.

S: "Following our previous discovery, published in 2018, we found that bi-axial Van der Waals semiconductors (like the chemicals used) represent an emergent family of materials supporting exotic polaritonic behaviors."

C: (laughs) I love it. I love it.

J: Cara, listen to me very carefully.

C: Listening.

J: The Emperor made everything that happened to Anakin Skywalker happen to him. He—

C: (cackles)

J: —he funneled him into becoming a Sith Lord, and then when he had him emotionally, he made him kill everyone that he could, and then he took advantage of the fact that Obi-Wan cut his arms and legs off, and that’s when he made him become Darth Vader. He basically built a prison around Anakin Skywalker.

C: Jay, you’re not using enough of the lingo. You have to throw in some of those words that Steve just used.

S: Like polaritonic, Jay, come on.

C: Polaritonic! Put a "polaritonic field" around him.

J: It was a miesotropic dual-transmission protobiotus tube that they put around him.

(Rogues laugh)

E: That’s better. (laughs)

C: I love it.

S: Right. All right, Bob—

J: —Cara goes, "I love it!"

Drake Remix (35:19)[edit]

S: All right, you want nerdy, Cara?

C: Yep! (Evan laughs.)

S: Bob’s going to tell us about yet another paper trying to squeeze another paper out of the Drake Equation.

B: Yeah, or, kind of related to Drake, but I shall mention that. So yes, we have another prediction about how much life there is in the universe. This time, it’s couched in terms of active alien civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy right now. Researchers claim that there’s likely to be at least—wait for it—36. Anticlimactic, right, a little bit? Thirty-six active alien—

C: —That seems like for just our galaxy.

B: Oh, yeah? Okay. So—

S: —Let’s see. There’s the Klingons, the Romulans…

B: (laughs)

S: There’s the Cardassians…

E: The Vulcans…

B: The Borlans.

S: The Dominion. Yep.

B: There’s a lot of 'em.

E: Romanians. [?]

B: So how confident is this assessment, and what about the Drake Equation? This comes from scientists at the University of Nottingham, and it published in a paper, recently, in the Astrophysical Journal. So this whole talk likely brings to mind the famous Drake Equation, as Steve mentioned. This is proposed by radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1961. Since we don’t know if there’s life out there—we never got a positive hit in our searches—we don’t know for sure. You have to infer it to try wrap your mind around it. And that’s kind of what the Drake Equation does: it infers the number of planets that could host a technological civilization that we could detect. And it brings to mind—to my mind, anyway—Sheldon, from The Big Bang Theory, who gave one of the most succinct description of the Frank Equation that I’ve ever heard.

E: (The Drake Equation.)

B: Now, Steve, he said, "The one that estimates the odds of making contact with extraterrestrials by calculating the product of an increasingly restrictive series of fractional values, such as those stars with planets, and those planets likely to develop life." And then he says the actual equation: N = R …….. I just remember that from years ago. It was just such a pithy way to describe it. The problem, of course, is that—

C:(laughs) That’s so pithy. I love it.

B: —It is! It’s just encapsulates it beautifully. So the problem, of course, is that scientists don’t know precisely what those numbers are. How many planets are there in the universe or in the galaxy that could host life, and, then, that could host life similar enough to Earth-life that can develop a technology that we’re familiar with. All that stuff. How do you really wrap your head around those numbers. Very difficult. We don’t know what those numbers are. And, of course, we’ve been refining them. We have a much better idea now that we’ve discovered all of these exoplanets, but we’re not anywhere near a decent confidence level. And we probably never will be. This is fun speculation, but I don’t think really we’re ever going to get an answer.

So this is kind of what these people are trying to do. Dr. Tom Wesby , first author of this latest study, said that, "Our new study simplifies these assumptions." He’s comparing it to the Drake Equation. "…simplifies these assumptions, using new data, giving us a solid estimate of the number of civilizations in our galaxy." "A solid estimate" is how he describes it. Interesting. So, this new research from these physics and astronomy scientists takes more of an evolutionary approach to determining how many times CETI—C-E-T-I, or Communicating Extraterrestrial Intelligent—civilizations arise. To do that, they need to make assumptions, right, because we just know so little. You’ve have to make some assumptions, and studies like these are usually all about the assumptions.

So their paper starts with a general assumption, the big, general assumption, and that is, if you take an Earth-like planet at an Earth-like distance from its star and you also take a Sun-like star, and you put them in a bag and shake 'em for five billion years, then it’s likely that life will form, right, without the bag, of course. I just threw that in there. It’s very likely that life will form, if you replicate some of the big-picture descriptions of our system. So that’s the big assumption. Doesn’t sound like a crazy assumption, but there it is.

But, then, they come up with ranges of predictions because the 36 that you see in these news items, that’s just one of many different numbers that they could have said. There’s lots of different ways to look at this. So they come up with ranges of predictions based on whether they apply a strong or a weak assumption on top of that original assumption, right? So you got the original assumption, and then they have another assumption that they can lay on top that’s either strong or weak, and from there, you get different numbers, depending on if you put the weak or the strong assumption. The number, 36, came after applying the strong assumption on top of that original one that they call the Astrobiological Copernican Strong Condition. Now, that means that a planet-star combination similar to the Earth and Sun must—not "will likely" create life—but must create intelligent life between 4.5 and 5 billion years. That’s the overarching, major assumption that they’re making here, and, then, they add another little assumption on top of that, that the resulting civilization should be actively communicating for 100 years. Just like us, right? A lot of this is based on the only data point that we have: life on Earth. So they’re throwing everything that we know about life on Earth, this one data point that we have, and they’re generalizing it to the entire galaxy or universe. So that’s the scenario because once you take all those assumptions that I mentioned—that life probably started on an analog to Earth’s Sun, and the other assumption was that it must have created intelligent life, not likely, but must have, between 4.5 and 5 billion years, and then you have 100 years of a resulting civilization, where they can communicate using technology—you add all of that together and it spits out a number, 36, or a range of numbers—

S: —Why just 100 years?

B: Because that’s—yeah! Right? I don’t know. Because—

C: —Are they saying at least 100 years?

B: It says 100. But it—

E: —is it because we’ve had 100 years of radio transmissions?

B: Yes, that’s why! Because, at the very least, we’re going to have—if we destroy ourselves tomorrow, we had at least 100 years of communication like that. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re modeling this after what we know, which, I think is—how do you generalized from this one thing? That’s where 36 came from, but the 36 was actually a huge range, and 36 was just the slightly more likely than some of the other numbers. If they applied the weak assumption to their general assumption, the answer would have been something like 928 civilizations existing right now, instead of 36. Okay? Now, the huge problem here is that the assumptions create these huge uncertainties. They’re so large that their answers could reasonable range from zero all the way to 2,908 existing right now in our galaxy, depending on which strong or weak assumption you layered on top. All I can say about that—that’s just, wait, all right, let me just calm down a second—

C & E: (laughs)

B: So it’s those uncertainties—it’s the huge size of these uncertainties that, I think, kills this entire idea and makes these numbers—I mean, if a reasonable answer to your query is zero, then, I mean, how useful is this equation? If it can—

C: —It’s a little like "Garbage in, garbage out." It’s not that it’s garbage, it’s just such speculation that you’re putting in, that, of course, that’s going to magnify the speculation getting out of the algorithm.

B: And, yeah, making it kind of worthless. I tried to think of analogy. One I came up with—it reminds me of Darwin trying to infer the Theory of Evolution from one finch. Like, "Okay, here we go. I got a finch." Trying to come up with the Theory of Evolution—you’re not going to do it. That’s one data point. Speculating can be a lot of fun; we speculate all the time. But coming up with anything that can be characterized as a solid estimate the way they described it, I think, it just pure folly. And I’m curious to see what some other scientists say, people that are real scientists.

S: It’s a pure guess!

B: Yeah, it’s a pure guess. They didn’t even really throw out—if you read their paper, sure. All these details are in there, but a lot of these—and they actually do an interesting job of trying to think about all the various scenarios and metallicities of stars and all these different characteristics—so it’s interesting, in a way, if you can get through the paper—and it’s not as difficult as many other papers i’ve read—but this is fairly technical. But a lot of these news items that these science outlets are talking [about]—they put the headline out there, "There’s 36 alien civilizations in the Milky Way," and they really are not doing it justice and really letting you know all the assumptions and huge uncertainties that are involved. So yeah, yet again, we’re seeing more science news where the title really sucks, and they really just don’t go into the detail that they should.

S: Again, it’s kind of like it’s a best of fun thought experiment at parties.

E: Exercise.

S: That’s about the level that it is. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t really inform anything because—

E: —Yeah, it doesn’t advance the ball for down the field.

S: "The answer could be zero, it could be thousands."

B: Right, and even if there are 36 alien civilizations throughout the Milky Way, they estimate that they’d be, on average, 17,000 light years away, and probably would be a planet orbiting a dim star that would be next to impossible for us to even find. So even then, even in a best case scenario, almost, it’s kind of like, "Oh, shit. Even though there might be 36, we probably couldn’t communicate with them anyway," based on what they were saying. But it was interesting—

E: —Not with radio transmissions.

B: —to research.

S: Yeah, but if civilizations, on average, survive for 100,000 years, then there could be 36 thousand civilizations.

B: Well that’s just it. And they mention that. If we find, somehow—if we can determine that some of these civilizations can last for many thousands of—like for millennia—then that would bode for us. Or, if this theory shows to us that, for example, that there’s only one or two of these civilizations in the entire galaxy, that would mean that they don’t. They don’t last that long. Maybe there is some big filter.

S: Well not necessarily, because of the other assumptions, because maybe most planets that are like Earth—and with the Earth-Sun combination—maybe most of them don’t produce intelligent species. Maybe intelligent technological type of species are more rare than our one data point might suggest.

B: Exactly.

C: And also maybe there’s a—we know there’s a different kind of Goldilocks Zone, so it’s weird that they’re using this rando Earth-type planet close to the Sun, when most astrobiologists have moved on, especially in our solar system, to looking at things that are much farther away that use tidal energy, for example.

B: Exactly. There could be thriving civilizations underneath miles of ice on more planets than carbon-based life on the Earth. There could be things that we would never detect. And those are the things that are lost in all of their assumptions. That could be the cause of so much life in the universe that we’ll never find with equations like this.

C: Yeah, and they could affect the outcome of the equation by orders of magnitude.

S: Orders of magnitude, exactly.


E: I like that one of the variables of the Drake Equation is the "civilization has to survive itself." It can’t blow itself up in the whole process. Or you have to account that—

C: It has to actually exist.

E: —some of them might do that. You get to the point of nuclear weapons; they may destroy themselves.

C: Or just one bad disease.

E: True.

B: Or some asteroid hitting the planet or some anti-matter nanotech fusion generated type of weirdness that destroys civilizations.

E: Too many twistronics that they built.

C: Or they just get—

B: —Great filter. Great filter, man.

C: —They could just get eaten by another organism. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of ways—

S: —New robots always take over.

C: —species can die early on. Or yeah, the robots.

E: Ah, the robots.

B: Synthetic life, using their artificial neural networks…

S: All right. Thanks, Bob.

Editing Human Embryos (47:41)[edit]

S: Cara, tell us about this study on editing human embryos. How’s that going?

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Voiceover: It’s time for Science or Fiction.

Theme: Earth
Item #1: About 50% of the heat given off by the Earth’s interior is generated from radioactive decay.[6]
Item #2: Earth is the densest planet in the solar system.[7]
Item #3: The driest place on Earth is the Atacama Desert in Chile and Peru, which receives on average 15 mm of rainfall per year.[8]

[Rogue’s] Response[edit]

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[Host] Explains [Item #][edit]

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SoF ()
Fiction atacama
Rogue Guess
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Who's That Noisy? ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: [brief description, perhaps with link]

New Noisy ()[edit]

[brief, vague description of Noisy]

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups ()[edit]

Question/Email/Correction #1: [brief description] ()[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

Science is elegant and beautiful, but it requires an effort to understand. This is a golden opportunity to educate people. Any person with a scientific temperament, not necessarily a scientist, cannot support these types of messages. – Hasan Al Hariri, CEO of the Dubai Astronomy Group, when asked about the June 21, 2020, doomsday insanity[1]

Signoff/Announcements ()[edit]

S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at theskepticsguide.org. Send your questions to info@theskepticsguide.org. And if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to patreon.com/SkepticsGuide and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.

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Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
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