SGU Episode 869

From SGUTranscripts
Revision as of 03:43, 30 April 2022 by Hearmepurr (talk | contribs) (4th news item transcribed)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
  Emblem-pen.png This episode is in the middle of being transcribed by Hearmepurr (talk) (as of 2022-04-22).
To help avoid duplication, please do not transcribe this episode while this message is displayed.
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs: transcription, formatting, links, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.
Please help out by contributing!
How to Contribute

You can use this outline to help structure the transcription. Click "Edit" above to begin.

SGU Episode 869
March 05th 2022
869 bimodal sex.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)
SGU 868 SGU 870
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein


Quote of the Week
Keep your identity separate from your opinions. [Your opinions] are objects in a box you carry with you and should be easily replaceable if it turns out they're no good. If you think that the opinions in the box are who you are, then you'll cling to them despite any evidence to the contrary. Bottom line, if you want to always be right, you need to always be prepared to change your mind.
CGP Grey, American-Irish educational YouTuber, podcaster
Links
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic

Introduction, Ukraine Invasion

Voice-over: 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 Tuesday, 1st 2022 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 folks!

S: So obviously the big news, the past week since we recorded the last show is Russia's invasion of Ukraine, so which of course is is terrible and obviously our sympathies are with Ukraine and Ukrainian people. We were hoping to actually have our friend George Hrab on the show today, who is Ukrainian. He obviously has a lot of strong emotions and opinions and information about what's going on but unfortunately he was not available tonight as we're recording. Maybe we'll get him on you know if as I doubt this is going to go away anytime soon, so we'll probably have them on at some point you know during the situation. It's been, it's been weird, it's been a weird week yeah you know.

C: It's been horrifying.

S: That's the thing, it's horrifying on the one side although we saw it coming, you know we knew what Putin was going to do but the other side it's like, yeah Ukraine and Zelenskyy have been inspiring.

C: Oh for sure.

S: Talk about like Zelenskyy kicked Putin's ass in terms of the PR battle, totally, like Putin is humiliated I think it's fair to say, in terms of, he's an international pariah, he we totally call this bluff on the sanctions and they're not even militarily executing their assault well. They're getting you know, they're getting bogged down already. So they failed like on every level. And so it's the, it's horrible but it's also a little inspiring, the reaction to it you know.

C: Yeah I think the thing that's so sad to see a obviously is the death and destruction of this you know incredibly illegal invasion and also the reporting, even out of Russia. How many of Russian citizens are bewildered and depressed by what's going on because they're not obviously backing Putin, sure, some Russians probably are but a large percentage of Russian citizens are like what it, why is my country doing this.

E: Right because they are the ones who are most affected as far as people on this on the Russian side of this goes. The day-to-day people you know Putin and his oligarchs and all the people high up and, they'll be fine in a certain sense. But it's the people who are going to pay. Do you know the ruble today is worth less than one cent to compare to the US dollar. That ruble has absolutely crashed, near zero. And how is that not going to impact your average Russian citizen. They are the ones ultimately, I mean there's obviously loss of life, but they are very much paying the price now and very far into the future for this.

J: Well Ev this is clearly a sign of you know a government doing what the government wants to do and the people have nothing to do with it you know. I mean I'm not judging the Russian people at all on any of this. I feel bad for them that they're stuck in this horrible situation. I agree with you Cara, I mean the number one thing here it that that's keeping me awake at night is definitely like you know the people of Ukraine and what what you know could you just imagine having to go through any of that. But my god is their leadership so awesome. Like it is so inspiring to see the global response and to see Ukraine leadership stand up in the absolute face of what I consider to be certain death.

C: Right, saying say like I'm not leaving Kiev, I'm not going anywhere, I'm gonna stand here for my people, with my people and I'm not going to let you make these like what, he literally called Ukrainian, I guess he was referring, Putin was referring to the government, when he said that it was like the nazification of Ukraine. By a Jewish holocaust, like descendant of holocaust survivor, like this is who, what is he doing?

S: Yeah this isn't coming out of nowhere, this is you know the part of the narrative that Putin is promoting but it goes back to Stalin, it goes back to, this is not new at all. So even you know in the early days of the 20th century, you know essentially Russia's had its eyes on Ukraine for a very long time. It wants to absorb Ukraine and make it its own. And that's why there is this denial of the either legitimacy of like an independent Ukraine you know. Even back you know in the in Stalin's days there was a program of the russification of Ukraine, you know they would essentially you know replace you know all the people in power and the intellectuals and everybody with Russians and ban speaking Ukrainian in in schools and you know trying to make like Russian the official language. And of course it didn't work, but that you know, it worked for a while under the soviet union but it you know not past that. So this is a continuation of that and when when Putin says things like you know Ukraine is like part of our culture and our history, and it's not really an independent legitimate you know country of its own. That's what he's referring to that this is what that Russia was trying to make it not a legitimate country. So yeah this isn't there's a lot of, there's a pretty deep historical context there, it kind of makes that what looks like an unhinged rant, at least puts it into context. It's like yeah, he's not just, he's not coming up with the stuff on the fly, this is a long-standing program.

E: He's former KGB, we can't forget that.

C: But it's so dark.

S: Yeah it's very dark.

C: It's very dark, you know what I mean, it's like as practiced as it is, and as much as the sort of rhetoric has been building, I don't think that he has been as, I don't know effective.

E: Oh he underestimated the whole thing I think he didn't, he miscalculated this terribly.

C: Yeah yeah like it's like, he didn't do his due diligence to like get the buy-in first, you know what I mean?

B: Does he care? How much does he even care about all that?

J: Well but it seems...

C: What's gonna happen to him.

E: Cost him a lot of money if he cares about that.

J: I can't interpret this any other way than them thinking that they were going to get this job done in a couple of days, like you know no sweat, no mess.

S: Clearly that was the plan. They're, I've read a lot of military analysis of what's going on and they all start with "military experts are baffled" you know by Russia's tactics here because it sounds like they were just going to sweep in, expect no resistance, take over Kiev in 48 hours, replace the government and it's done, right? That was their plan and they were completely you know shocked by the resistance that they met and now the Ukrainian military and the you know civilian militias have had a chance to dig in, erect defenses and get needed supplies.

C: And like the entire EU, everybody's backing them.

S: Yeah so now the question is how─

B: In what way though.

C: Financially and with weapons.

S: With weapons. How desperate is Putin going to get. Because he's not going to just lay down and take a loss here. He you know now that the next step is to do what he's done like in Georgia and Syria, is able to start carpet bombing cities.

C: I mean but that's the thing, I feel like, isn't there already some evidence pointing to the fact that he's like committing war crimes?

S: Yes so there are─

E: Yeah oh yeah I think so.

S: So there are accusations of him using weapons that are banned and not supposed to be used, especially against civilians and targeting civilians but it's you know it's fog of war and all that. It's hard to say.

C: But ultimately let's say that he does have to back down, let's say that like you know this is a failed military operation, what is the, what's the outcome of that, is there a way for Putin to face charges, is there a way for Putin to be I don't know, I mean if he is found to commit war crimes.

E: An international court could fine him couldn't they?

S: Again we're not experts on this guys, we're not politicians and everything we're just we're trying to digest we're reading in the news. My understanding is that Russia's not part of the international court system, like, so he's outside of it, so it's questionable from what I've read whether or not he could be held accountable by any international court.

C: Or if he would even go, if you'd be like you couldn't make me.

E: Of course he wouldn't no─

C: Yeah exactly.

E: ─he would ignore it obviously but I mean forget him traveling anywhere outside of Russia now, you know I mean.

S: Strategically he lost already, I mean the fact that Germany completely reversed their post cold war policy, and they're like okay we're going to double our military spending and we're going to give weapons to Ukraine, you know like essentially Putin has accomplished for the US in days what we have been unable to accomplish in years. It totally backfired.

J: Can you say that again. That that felt so good.

C: And not just for the US but for for Europe.

S: Yeah meaning for NATO, US's goals for NATO, like NATO, again I think Putin was clearly counting on NATO collapsing. And instead he has unified NATO and you know NATO is now stronger, more unified, more determined and it's, and it's showing in very concrete policy, such as you know Germany's reversal. So he's got to be, he's got to be feeling the hurt you know in terms of that. But again it's what, are we on day six or seven, it's still early days, a lot is going to determine on how long NATO and the west can sustain what we're doing. It's going to be, so we're sort of, we call this bluff we're sort of winning the game of chicken, so far, and now it's a matter of who's going to have the endurance. Are we going to be able to bite the bullet, you know like when people start paying more at the pump, how much, are they going to be like okay I'll do that for NATO and Ukraine and to stick it to Putin. Or are they going to be like, this is, increasing crazy, I can't pay 20 cents more for a gallon of gasoline, who's responsible for this, we have to end this right now. So it depends on how, you know again I'm very emboldened by how the world has reacted so far. And now we have to sustain it, you know.

C: That's never easy.

S: Never easy, we have to have more endurance than Putin and the Russians do, in this, or he will be proven correct in the long term. You know if we if we eventually tire of these, the downside of the sanctions for us you know. And Europe's going to feel it more than America is. Gas is still like you know pretty cheap in the united states─

E: Compare it with other countries.

S: ─compared to the rest of the world, compared to historically. I mean you know it's, we are so spoiled in terms of the cost of our gas. And Europe pays a lot more than we do and they are way more dependent on Russian fossil fuel.

C: We did just along though with a lot of other countries open up a lot of our reserves, right?

S: Yeah but that's very temporary, that's like, from what I read it's like that was, oh that was 12 hours worth of gasoline you know.

C: Oh really oh god.

S: It's yeah I mean it's like days, it's insignificant compared to, because we consume so much.

C: Which is like helpful if this thing you know, if this thing doesn't.

S: That was symbolic, releasing a little bit from the strategic reserves was more symbolic than anything.

C: I see.

S: You know but long term, but here's the thing, you know again I'm reading early reports that Germany's like maybe we can't close down all of our nuclear power plants, maybe we should reopen a couple of the ones─

J: This is amazing.

S: ─if they're not getting natural gas through the Nordstream 2 pipeline from from Russia they have no choice, you know they have to, I may have to just keep nuclear going for 20 years until they really build out, you know their renewable infrastructure enough that they─

E: Including new nuclear.

S: ─ independent of Russian gas, you know that's just the way it is. So again, if they can, hopefully we can turn this into a greater push for oil independence. Meaning, burning less fossil fuel, you know, that would be a good outcome.

C: Oh it's so sad though that is such a fundamental part of this very basic human conflict. Is these financial incentives, these economic incentives. And and I'm glad that this is you know the diplomacy I guess that we're utilizing because I actually think in the long run it reduces the cost on human life. But it's just it's so sad, when I really think about war, and the cost of war, and what are we accomplishing here?

S: So the I think one of the more bizarre aspects of this whole thing was the head of Roscosmos essentially threatening to crash the ISS in retaliation to to American and European sanctions.

C: Right like onto the US like crashing onto the US.

S: Like come on, yeah so yeah it's not going to hit us, it's going to hit either US or Europe, maybe it'll hit china, how's that going to work out for you?

E: Smacks of desperate.

S: NASA responded just by saying, everything's fine you know, we're, we continue to work normally with all of our partners, including Russia on the ISS. They basically just completely downplayed it, essentially calling his bluff on.

E: Right another bluff call.

S: But also like the ISS is in no immediate danger of de-orbiting you know without Russian engines correcting its orbit. It would take at least a couple of years. And you know we have the ability to get up there with our own craft, so we would figure something out in the meantime if Russia did decide to pull out of the ISS abruptly.

C: And of course Roscosmos is you know pulling all of their personnel and halting all of their operations both in Kazakhstan at Baikonur and also I think right now in in French Guiana. The two places where Arianespace launches Soyuz. But do we do we need Soyuz? Like it's helpful is it the only way?

S: Not anymore because we have─

C: Exactly.

S: ─dragon crew, yeah, SpaceX.

'C: Yeah so we've got American rockets and American launch sites. So we're not, it's not like you know, it may delay the Galileo satellites that were scheduled to launch there in April you know because that's right around the corner. But I don't think in the long term cutting off that utilization would really affect. I don't know, it seems like a weird diplomatic move.

S: It is sad too because the ISS was a symbol of international cooperation which stood above politics and above this sort of thing dragging the ISS immediately into this conflict was a low blow.

C: I know can you imagine being a cosmonaut on the ISS right now?

S: Yeah, there's two of them out there.

C: Yeah and they're like but I didn't say that, that was that was that was the dude back home, right, like, we don't buy in to this.

B: Imagine the awkward looks on the space station.

E: [inaudible]

J: Talk about taking your ball off the playing field like, we're going to crash the space station on you─

S: Screw you guys I'm going home.

J: ─I know but think about that that has nothing has ever been uttered like that before, like it's just insane.

C: Well it's very cold war isn't it it's, very like it's such a game of chicken.

S: All right well this is obviously a rapidly evolving story, the thing is by the time this show airs it's going to be a very different situation. Remember we're talking, we're recording this on Tuesday, we say it at the top of the show. Some people forget, like we got emailed last week about "hey why didn't you talk about Ukraine?", because that happened after we recorded the show. You know just remember to listen to the date we record at the at the top and stuff happens you know in the, during the post-production time. But we'll we'll probably mention this in the future, again I'm sure we'll have George on at some point to talk about it as well give his perspective since he is Ukrainian.

E: And it's a good reminder to tune in to us live on Fridays five o'clock Eastern Time for our shows because we did speak about it then.

S: We did, we did speak about it on a Friday, absolutely.

E: Yes, join us on Fridays.

S: Alright. Let's get to some news items.

Quantum Gravity Gradiometer (16:07)

S: Bob, you're going to start with this quantum "gravity-ometeor" thing. (Evan laughs)

B: Gradiometer.

S: Gradiometer.

B: Gradiometer, yes. So researchers claim that the end of an international race to be the first to use quantum mechanics to peer into the ground using a quantum gravity gradiometer, which employs an even more revolutionary atomic interferometer. So Dr. Michael Holynski is the head of the Atom Interferometry at Birmingham University, the lead author on the study that was published in Nature. A and in it he describes the ability of his of this device to detect a tunnel three feet underground using, basically just gravity. So I am reminded of the end of one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, the Incredibles (Cara laughs), remember, remember at the very end when the underminer and his drilling machine─

E: Yes, I love the underminer.

B: ─and he announces to the world I am always beneath you but nothing is beneath me. (Evan laughs) Do you remember that?

E: Yes.

B: Probably, probably the best line ever contemplated for a subterranean villain bent on destruction. I mean how perfect is it. But it got me thinking, how do we know what's beneath us? You know this is critical you know if you want to build something huge and important that you got public works of highway, roads, buildings. Like hey how about the leaning tower Pisa? More often than desired, there's something down there like sinkholes, mine shafts, maybe even an underminer.

E: Hire a dowser to find it for you. [sarcasm]

B: How many times have you cursed the road projects that go on forever near your home or near work, and go way over budget. Many times it's because someone said "whoa I didn't know that was down there". And that just throws a monkey wrench in the whole works, right? And that's one of the reasons why the expenses go crazy and it takes years and years for some of the stuff to finish because of the unexpected things that they come across down there. Now this is just part, my description here so far, is just part of what a quantum gravity gradiometer could do away with, in a lot of ways. So other than digging though how do we know what's underground? And there's lots of, there's different ways to do it, some better than the others, but we've long recognized that gravity detection would be fantastic for these things, like common surveys trying to find out what's under the ground, in a limited area, not like for like the southern united states, but like in this area, where you're going to do something. So the problem in a nutshell is, what do you think what's the big problem with using gravity to detect what's under the ground in a small-ish area?

S: Noise?

E: A lot of noise?

B: Yes vibrations, vibrations. The Earth is always vibrating from seismic events, human activity etc. And you may think, seismic events? You know how often does that happen?

E: Every second of every day? (Cara laughs)

B: Almost, almost every second. Because I just went through, I looked at a talk I did a couple years ago for, there's a rule, there's a kind of a rule that for every one, for every one magnitude seven event, you go down, there's ten six magnitude sixes and then a hundred magnitude fives, and a thousand. So you keep going down and down that way, you eventually end up with these very very very tiny earthquakes that happen all the time. These baby quakes I think they calculated for southern California 100 every 174 seconds there's a quake that that can be detected using the latest techniques. So lots of things are vibrating for lots of reasons and that noise, that's just noise, and that just swamps out any of the gravity readings that you might want to take of a parcel of land. It just takes way too long, I mean you could do it but you have to sit there like for a really long time, it's gonna cost a ton of money and you know, to scan an area. Because the longer you sit there, the more you build up your signal and you then you could overwhelm the the noise. But it takes a long time, so it's not done very often but we know it would be an amazing tool if they can get past some of these problems. And this is exactly what the quantum gravity gradiometer supposedly can do. And it has been, you know, has been shown to work in the field. Professor George Tuckwell is the director of geoscience and engineering at RSK said:

"Detection of ground conditions such as mine workings, tunnels and unstable ground is fundamental to our ability to design, construct and maintain housing, industry and infrastructure. The improved capability that this new technology represents could transform how we map the ground and deliver these projects."

All right so how how does this work? So the active ingredient in this tech is an amazing thing─

E: Love.

B: ─with an atomic interferometer. Amazing. So now we've discussed interferometry right with light before, right? We've done that before. And I'm going to do it again, because I could say it in an even better way than I said it last time, I think. A laser beam is split, right, you got a laser blade, it's split by a half mirrored silver or a beam splitter, right, so the light has two possible paths to take. Equal probability, I can go up or I can just go straight. Now we know that if you don't try to determine which specific path the light takes, in a very real sense light takes both of those paths at the same time, right, that's superposition, which is a top three of the natural scientific wonders of the universe in my estimation. (Cara laughs) Amazing, amazing, look it up. If you're not familiar with it, look up superposition it's kind of like the magic of the Universe. So now both beams then rejoin eventually, right, that's the design, they join back together and then the light beams interfere. And it interferes with itself as all waves can do right? Producing fringes of light and interference pattern. So now that pattern can be read, it's like a fingerprint in a lot of ways, it's very specific and it can be read and interpreted to tell us what happened to make the beams different. What happened to them, what happened in the environment to cause that interference pattern. Very sensitive, very powerful, so now an atom interferometer is the same concept but pulled off in the opposite way. Instead of a beam of light it's a beam of atoms. And instead of a solid mirror or a solid beam splitter it's laser beams, special laser beams that can actually send the atoms down one of two, you know two possible pathways. So what happens, what happens here do you think? So you got a beam of atoms that then kind of go in different directions, what happens?

J: Gravity pulls them down.

B: It's pretty much, well you're not entirely wrong Jay but not where I'm going right now. (laughter) It's the same, the same thing, the same thing happens because it splits, goes into two pathways at the same time if you're not looking at it, because matter is waves as well, these atoms are waves as well and therefore can also produce interference fringes. Thank you, thank you Louis de Broglie he's the one, wasn't Einstein, is the boy who came up with it with this, Ii believe the very first person that said matter has waves. And one of the things that can impact these interference fringes caused by matter is gravity itself. That's one of the things that will have an impact on those fringes that can be identified. So now the the researchers have taken an atomic interferometer in a quantum gravity gradiometer. They've taken it out of a lab, this is now out of the lab for the first time and they've proved that it works and they're in the real world. And the expectation now, and it seems pretty clear from what I know that that this can have, it's going to revolutionize or at least have a major impact on on many things, including geophysics, which is the focus of this specific application. So now this new lens into the domain of the underminers could, you know, could do things like cause ground surveys to go from a month to a few days. So instead of doing a survey for 30 days, you can knock it out in a long weekend. Done. And construction costs and delays should should go down in a lot of cases. They could also discover hidden natural resources and structures, they could actually view archaeological discoveries without excavating─

E: That's the cool stuff.

B: ─without excavating, that's you know and you can get some pretty good detail too you know in later iterations of this technology potentially. There's also things that it could do to help mitigate some of the devastating impacts that we are certainly going to be seeing due to climate change, right? So for example using this technology we could refine flooding models and improve safety in flood zones. That's going to be very important in the future. Another one here, see if you'll like this one, this technology could help provide effective storage for CO2 kind of insulating it from the atmosphere underground, right? Carbon sequestration, that's going to be huge we're going to be hearing a lot about that in the news in the coming generation, and this could actually help with that. So that's all cool and interesting but the news, the real news item here I think is kind of buried, they kind of buried the lead here a little bit. Because if you step back from the quantum gravity gradiometer and you look at the atomic interferometer itself, I think you could see that it's going to have similar impacts to a lot of other fields at well, a lot of other fields as well, and it's going to, could be revolutionary I think and I think this is going to get a lot of Nobel prizes in the in the next decade or so. So because what you have it, when you, when you're having a you know a well-built and functioning atomic interferometer, you're essentially have an amazingly sensitive sensor. It's a sensor in a lot of ways. Now matter waves can be ten thousand times smaller than a typical light wave that's used for interferometry, ten thousand times smaller, ten thousand times more sensitive so the things that you could do with this, so can really kind of sound astounding. With it you could detect that the the most minute amount of inertial motion, gravity acceleration, direction and more. So think about that, think about what I just said, if this thing can detect, with exquisite sensitivity motion, acceleration and direction, what can you do? How about putting one of these in a car and you tell the system "here's where you are" now that's it. Then you isolate the car from all electronics and and Wi-Fi, everything, everything you can. Then you drive the car for hours just drive it for hours, going in any anywhere you want to go and based solely on how the car moved, this device could tell you precisely where you where you are on the Earth. Even what elevation you're at, no GPS required at all, right? That's something that is absolutely possible with this.

C: How big is it?

B: Well because this is, one of the things that makes this very enticing as a, as a radiometer, is the fact that you could put this on it on a car or a truck to do these surveys. So this is not that, it's not too that that big at all. And i don't think it's unreasonable to think that in the future a lot of cars right now could have something like that. Where you don't need GPS. Now of course you could probably do that now, but you know you're going to spend three hundred thousand dollars or maybe three million dollars on your car. But, as many things with electronics and technology, this could foreseeably be something that most a lot of cars could have, who knows? 20 years? 10 years? 30 years? I don't know but it's something that should not be a problem. It could also do things like help us refine the fundamental constants that are critical to physics. How about this, for example, what is the recoil velocity of an atom when a single photon hits it?

J: No idea.

B: That's the kind of thing that an atomic interferometer could tell us.

J: Wait so you don't know the answer?

B: No, I'm not, I'm not going to tell you (Cara laughs)

E: What? Tease.

B: But that, this these are the kinds of questions that an atomic barometer could give us. I mean I'm sure we have an estimate right now. But with with a ferometer because it's, interferometer, because it's so sensitive we could determine the recoil velocity of an atom when a single photon hits it with you know, with much greater precision than we can ever think of doing right right now without that device. So that's an example and that future atomic interferometers could probe the nature of quantum mechanics like never before. Jay you like, you like a good probing. Like never before with the quantum mechanics. So what can we do? We could, we can answer questions like, when precisely do things act like waves or atoms, you know, to really pin that down. You know what what is the nature of reality? In a lot of respects we'll have a much more confident answer using atomic interferometers and their sensitivity. Okay so I'm almost at the end guys, calm down (Cara laughs) I don't, I don't want to end with that sentence, so I'm going to end with this anecdote from the scientists who worked with these hyper accurate atomic interferometers. They went out to lunch, the scientists went out to lunch, they came back and they're messing with the with their apparatus, their atomic interferometer. And it declared that the local gravity had changed after they got back from lunch. And that was because of the food in their stomach. The food in their stomach─

J: Oh my god.

B: ─had mass, so because there was more mass in the same spot, the gravitational gradient changed enough for this device to detect it.

J: My god.

C: So what happened after they pooped?

E: It goes the opposite way.

B: Then it would go back down. So obviously they either didn't poop more than they ate or they hadn't pooped yet but they came back after lunch and that's what happened. So I thought that was such an awesome anecdote right there, just to give you an idea of what this is and I think we're definitely going to be seeing atomic interferometers on the stage in Sweden to collect a prize at some point or multiple prizes because these are just like discoveries waiting to be made now with this type of technology, now that it's out of the lab, you know more fully. Wheew, Jesus.

S: It still amazes me like the whole you know, quantum mechanics is counter-intuitive like in the extreme, but that we do stuff with it, like it actually works. It's not just theoretical.

B: Yeah modern electronics would not be where it is. The Sun could not do what the sun does every minute.

S: Technology uses quantum effects, like GPS satellites make quantum adjustments.

B: Yeah our, the GDP of the entire world that crucially depends on quantum mechanics to be what it is, without it.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah that's I love it, love it.


Sea Level Rise (29:57)

S: All right Jay give us an update on sea level rise due to global warming. This is not going to be good.

J: This is not going to be good guys. So a report was released last week by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. You guys have heard of the IPCC.

E: Yes.

J: The report goes into detail explaining that global warming is getting markedly worse, which nobody should be surprised about. And without immediate and strong greenhouse gas intervention the future is grim. One interesting thing that I read that that a lot of the the climatologists and scientists that work on this information are saying, is they're getting emotionally fatigued from creating all these reports over and over and more and more and more information mounts up. And nothing's happening, very little is happening. And I think that they're hoping that this report, because it's very, very definitive. There is no discussion anymore at all about, is it happening? Of course, it's just a matter of of magnitude at this point. And they're finding that it's going to be bad guys. So the report was written by 270 researchers from 67 countries, which is great because it's a global effort. In the, the paper concludes that nations are currently barely making a difference, and that immediate and profound measures need to be taken. Particularly sea level will rise one foot by 2050. You know 2050 it sounds like it's far away, it's not, it's 28 years away. It's not far away. 28 years goes by very very quickly, especially if you're an adult, you know, like you know 28 years, your kids are growing all of a sudden and they're off to college and then you know, that's it, 28 years. By 2100 it could be up to two feet and if little or no measures are taken to you know counteract the global warming that we all know about, the oceans will rise a total of seven feet by then.

C: So this is why they're saying that sea walls aren't going to be enough to mitigate.

J: Yeah that's definitely true because we just don't know like, right now guys it's not happening, nothing is happening.

C: Well and not just that, sea walls are not going to keep out seven feet of ocean rise.

E: Eight feet wall, eight foot walls right now I mean it's not gonna happen.

C: No. Exactly. And that's sort of our plan, that's our great plan we'll just put a fence around it.

E: Yeah. A mesh fence that'll do.

J: Keep in mind like these numbers, you know how accurate can they be. They're, they're accurate, these are averages I'm telling you globally and this is where this news item becomes very interesting. So depending on the location, the numbers can be very different. And you'd think that sea rise would be the same everywhere, but there's other factors involved. Some coasts like Texas, that are in the Gulf of Mexico, can see up to two feet of sea level rise by 2050. Comparative to other places, say, that are going to only see one foot. Why? What's what's going on there? This is due to the fact that the land in that area, right, so you know, the Gulf of Mexico and where Texas is, that land is sinking.

S: What is it thinking?

(laughter)

B: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

J: Why, Evan you might ask why is the earth sinking?

E: I did ask why.

J: Right thank you. In this case it's mostly due to the fact that oil and water have been sucked out of the ground, right, they, we have, industry has pulled so much material out of the ground, that there is you know a huge, there's a gap that's happening inside the land and the land is sinking into the open spaces that are there now. And this is called subsidence. So in the Gulf of Mexico the land is sinking into itself, as the sea levels rise. Not a good combination guys, not good.

C: And caused by the same human activity.

J: Yeah. Conversely Anchorage, Alaska is expected to have only, oh wait I'm saying it wrong, not only. Anchorage, Alaska is expected to have an eight-inch drop in sea level by 2050. The the sea level will go down eight inches by 2050.

C: Oh interesting.

J: This is because during an ice age glaciers weighed down and compressed Alaska and as the glaciers melted the land now is rising back up. And it's still happening today and you have to think of this in geologic terms. And if George were here I would have made a joke there but I can't now. (laughter) So, you have to think in you know tens of thousands of years, you know, like the land is slowly like recovering from being smushed by those glaciers. So the the sea is actually rising but the land is rising you know enough to make it so the sea level will go down there. That's pretty cool. Now that's not, unluckily for all of us, that's not going to happen everywhere, that just happens to be Alaska but I'm just showing you like the difference.

B: Also, yeah but I mean, I mean the ground is decompressing if you will in the United States as well to a certain extent.

J: But not enough to counteract like the the global problem that we're facing here.

B: Yeah.

E: Inches vs feet, probably.

J: Definitely. We have new satellites that are going to be able to map the rise and fall of coastlines and they're saying that these will have extreme precision, like the kind of precision where they can tell the difference between one building to the next. If one will be higher or you know if one is sinking or going down and where what's the ocean level going to be at all. You know basically everywhere. You know think about that precision. Global warming is also changing the way that the ocean functions. This is like the way that the water moves and what's happening inside of the ocean. There'll be temperature changes and even current changes around the globe. And when the ocean temperature rises the water itself takes up more space, because you know that's what happens when water heats up. And this of course will do what, it'll cause the sea levels to rise as the global temperature goes up. Some oceans are more susceptible than others, but ocean temperatures will rise and the ocean volume will increase because it's hotter. Parts of the world where the ocean will remain cooler, you know, the sea won't rise as much, but you know, half of the the global sea level rise can be attributed to the increase in water temperature. That's a lot.

B: Yeah.

C: Wow, half, that's amazing.

S: Yeah, water expands as it heats.

J: So now let's talk about what, what that water is going to be doing. Moderately destructive flooding will happen 10 times more frequently by 2050. Highly destructive flooding will happen five times more frequently. And flooding is not the worst of it. Hurricanes for example do a great job of rising sea levels and blowing water on shore right, you guys have seen tons of video of this happening.

B: Low pressure, yeah.

J: This means that hurricanes will be intensely more destructive where the sea levels have risen because that, it'll be able to bring that water even further into land. It's basically telling hurricanes "come on in guys, no problem, you know, we, all is welcome, bring everything that you got" like you know give it to us in the worst way that you possibly can. Of course the best thing we can do is first: mitigate global warming please everybody─

B: Ha!

J: ─everywhere, every country needs to get involved. Stand up and make it happen right now. But even our best efforts are not going to stop the sea from rising, it's already you know, that that ship sailed a long time. Ago and this means that we'll have to spend an incredible amount of money engineering our way out of some of the future problems that are that are heading our way. And Cara brought up one of them like one idea is you know we could build some sea walls to help you know at least in certain areas, try to keep some of that water from getting to certain places. The Army Corps of Engineers in the United States is building a sea wall, like you know they have like plans to build one in Miami.

C: Right but the point I was making is it won't be enough.

J: It won't be and you know what's funny Cara is they're saying like you know there's also an economic component to this, say like you know rich cities and rich towns can build the sea wall and then they're shunting that water to guess who? The poor people. You know what happens you know ten miles down the road where they─

C: It's a zero-sum planet.

J: ─yeah it's just not good. So another thing that they were talking about is building giant coastal barriers, you know like building like you know sand bars and things like that you know just to elp mitigate the energy that's going to be coming to the land from the ocean. But you know those efforts, I found out, take a long time. Like 20 years long to build you know. Like these aren't like things that you just get a machine out there and it happens overnight. It's a very expensive, very difficult thing and they're not even sure how well they're going to work. So you know this problem is coming, it's just a matter of magnitude and again you know we're citizens and nations around the world guys, right? Everybody listening to this show, we all live somewhere and there's some type of government that's governing us and we're just voters right at this point, at best, you know depending on what country you live in. What can we do? Part of it is you know public awareness and letting our politicians know that it's a concern of ours. That's a big deal because eventually they're going to have to do something you know, if they're not going to react to this report, specifically this horrible, unbelievably rock solid report, then it's going to come down to people like us, complaining, and making waves, you know good waves.

S: You know of course there's always uncertainty in all of this, all of this science you know, but, the deniers can always emphasize the uncertainty and basically say we should do nothing.

C: Yeah banking on uncertainty that's a great strategy.

E: Good plan, good plan.

J: Let's get started on that right away.

E: I'll do it tomorrow.

S: Yeah but you know, we have to make decisions with uncertainty, but this is like way above the line. I think we, in terms of yeah, this is actionable. And unfortunately we have to act decades ahead of time, you know we can't wait until we're sure because then.

C: We have to fix this yesterday.

S: Right we're already behind, behind line. Although there's a little bit of good news that it was not really much noticed. I wrote about this on my blog earlier this week. The, if you look at the IPCC report, the one revision that's happened since the previous report was that you know there's new evidence about the how long would it take for the atmosphere to stop warming, after we stop releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, right? S in other words, previously, previously the extrapolation was that the carbon we've already released will continue to warm the climate for decades. But now it looks like it would stop warming the climate within one decade. Like within 10 years we would flatten. It wouldn't, it wouldn't come down, that would take thousands of years, but it would at least flatline after only about 10 years instead of continuing to rise for 40-50 years. So that's a good, that's a revision and a good─

E: Optimist.

S: ─yeah it may mean that we have a tiny bit more time than we thought. But as Cara said, we're already late. And so we're just not quite as late maybe as we thought we were. It doesn't really change things, that means we have to do things right now, but it does mean that if we did, if we did dramatically reduce carbon emissions, the the warming would stop quicker than we thought, you know, 10-20 years ago, which is good. So it's an argument for doing something.

C: Exactly.

S: You know delaying further or not doing something. It's really you know I framed it as like, if you're a nihilist you know what's the point, it's too late, it's never a good position anyway but it's even more not relevant, you know, the nihilism position I think is just self-defeating. It's like no if we if we reduced our carbon emissions it will stop the warming fairly quickly, you know and give us time to then sequester CO2 and maybe get, bring the temperatures down to a more historical level. And again there's like there's no perfect amount of carbon and temperature for the Earth. It's just we don't want to change it too quickly and we kind of built our civilization around the current climate and changing it really quickly is gonna you know cause a lot of a lot of harm and displace a lot of people.

NASA Innovative Projects (43:38)

S: All right well let's move on to some exciting news about NASA funding some really innovative projects. So we talk a lot about space travel and space travel is very difficult. You know this is something that Bob, Jay and I really delved into on our on our book you know about the future, because you know we actually what space travel gonna look like in 100 or 200 years or whatever. And the bottom line is it's really gonna suck. And it's gonna suck for a very long time. And it's gonna be, it's gonna be nothing like any science fiction show has ever depicted, because, the science fiction, in order to make the story happen you got to pretend like we could be zipping around the solar system or even interstellar and you know where you so that your story could be fast-paced and people could visit interesting places, whatever. Even hard science fiction has to throw in one or two gimmies, to make it all work. But if you just say what's it really gonna be like, it's really hard.

B: Yeah it's Steve, even The Expanse which is very very you know, very hard science, even they've got gimmies to, so stuff can happen you know in a single lifetime type of thing, you know, reasonable time frame.

S: But it's not that these problems are not solvable. They are, the challenges of space travel for humans you know is solvable. Robots have a lot easier time and space than we do. But, but it's going to take a lot more time, infrastructure and trade-offs than we imagine, then we've been led to believe by science fiction if you will. But NASA is trying to chip away at these problems and one of the things that they're doing is funding innovative research. Like come up with some interesting ideas to solve these horrific problems of having people in space. So they announced their latest rounds of phase one and phase two grants to do some research, and I wanted to highlight a few of them that I thought were interesting. So one is, what's called HERDS: High Expansion Ratio Deployable Structures. So the High Expansion Ratio, that means it's an engineered structure that unfolds right, so it could be packed really tight to fit into the cargo space of a rocket. And then once you get it into orbit it can unfold to become much bigger. And they have a design, the reason the people who got the grant for this, have a design for a structure that has they say an unprecedented 150 times expansion ratio. 150 times. So they they say this is something that could fit into a current you know cargo space of a rocket and when it expands it'll be like a kilometer.

C: But is it made out of like paper?

S: No no no this would be a station it's made out of metal.

C: Oh yeah cool.

S: Yeah yeah. So it's it's you know very complicated scissoring like unfolding kind of a structure. And so they they, this is a phase two stage, so they've already completed the phase one study of like plausibility proof or concept kind of thing. Now they're like all right now we gotta work out some more of the details, like really get the structure you know get to get the details down, make sure it reliably deploys, it doesn't jam up you know. How do we deal with manufacturing errors, like exactly what are we going to build it out of. They're going to build a they say meteor scale prototypes to show how it all works. With you know thousands of links they say. So once they perfect it, the idea is that this would basically be like a pop-up space station. Now why does it have to be so big you might be wondering. And I think you know we I know Jay and Bob know the answer to this, that Evan and Cara may be suspecting, why do we need why would we need a space station to be really long, let's say what why is that feature critical for a long occupation?

B: Longer is better?

E: Collects more solar particles.

B: Gravity?

S: Gravity. Artificial gravity. If you're going to rotate it to produce artificial gravity, it's got to be really big. If it's too small, then the people aboard will sense the the rotation, it'll cause vertigo and disorientation.

C: Lots of puke.

S: Yeah you need kilometer, which is not good in space, so you need kilometer scale structures to be able to generate 1g of artificial gravity at around 1-2 RPMs. Anything faster than that is going to cause too much vertigo. So this is a structure that would be that large. Now of course the other way you could get there is to take multiple multiple trips and then assemble something huge in space, so that would be sort of the more traditional approach. But that of course is much more expensive if you can get it up there with a single launch and then just pop it open, something that's a kilometer long, you still have to then, you know there will still be obviously be multiple trips to supply it and and I'm sure add electronic equipment and stuff like that. But at least just getting the external structure in place with just a single launch it would be a huge advantage.

C: So Steve, obviously directly relates but not to the sort of origami situation, but how readily can human beings physiologically, psychologically adapt to the yuckies. Like is there not a situation in which we can train for something smaller and have like an interim experience, and then actually exist. Because I get that in space we're always trying to, it's like the the Henry Ford thing, like what do people want? Faster horses. Like we're trying to make it as much like earth as possible, let's approximate earth's gravity. But is there not a way that we as people can adapt to a different gravity if we do it like kind of step wise.

S: Oh totally. So you know NASA is researching multiple approaches to these issues. So one is as they're they're happy to tell you when we interviewed them for NECSS last year is, and a lot of this research is happening aboard the ISS. Is basically doing medical biological research to figure out how to adapt people to space, to microgravity, to radiation etc. But microgravity─

C: It's bad for your body.

S: ─hard physiologically on people. So and then in terms of like resilience. Resilience to vertigo, resilience to microgravity etc. There's a lot of variability in people, so there will be some selection process going out, but they don't want that really to be the solution. Like only the select few happen to be highly resistant to vertigo get to be on the space station. They want to be able to accommodate obviously a wider range of astronauts. But I think you know it's inevitable that to some extent, when we start having like permanent occupation of space, that there is going to be some physiological adaptation going on. The question is depending on how far in the future is it. Will there be like genetic engineering adaptation going on, like we talked about, just this is speculative but remember the proteins that the tardigrades use to protect their DNA from cosmic rays. You know, incorporating that into human DNA might be─

E: That'd be nice.

S: ─and necessary adaptation if you want to be a Belter or whatever, live on Mars.

E: Belter, I like it.

S: That's from, that's from The Expanse. All right the next one I want, this, there's a bunch of these and we're going to talk about a couple that I thought were the most interesting. Another one is digital space suit. So this is, again, the idea is is not new but it's developing the technology whereby you would scan an astronaut and then like 3D print a bespoke, customized, individual space suits for them.

E: Yeah perfect fit.

S: Why, why is this important? So in the Apollo era, the Apollo era, the Apollo spacesuits that the astronauts used to walk on the moon were individual, they were they were customized for the individual astronaut. That worked really well in that the astronauts loved them. They said they were very comfortable, they fit perfectly because they were designed for them. The problem is they didn't last that long, right? The Moon ate them up.

B: Oh yeah.

S: And they're expensive. So again if we're going to have a long-term occupation of Mars, or the Moon or even space. We need spacesuits that are going to be cheaper, more you know able to mass produce them and replace them and upgrade them etc. So for that reason with the space shuttle program NASA went with a modular design so these these spacesuits were no longer individually made for one astronaut. They basically just had different sizes like a small, medium, large approach. With you know a modular design, so you could sort of piece a suit together that would, that would fit one astronaut. But one suit would be worn by like 200 different astronauts. So that that worked in a sense but there was a couple of big failure points. One wasn't didn't fit everybody, as we learned you know not too long ago.

E: Right.

S: And eVA had to be delayed because they basically didn't have suits that could fit the astronauts they had on the station. But also the astronauts hate them. Because they have a lot of pressure points. They have sometimes, they're just, they don't have the mobility or they have, they actually literally get injuries because of the pressure points in the suit or it limits the range of motion, it limits the strength that they have because it's not fitting their joints properly.

B: Screw that.

S: Now the Artemis spacesuits, which are still being developed, and this has been delayed because they're having a hard time, like really accomplishing what they want to do. But the Artemis is following the space shuttle approach, where they're going to have a modular design, not individual spacesuits for individual astronauts. But they're just going to try to do it better, like have more sizes.

B: Extra small and extra large?

S: Yeah to have the sort of the best of both worlds. But again they're having trouble, you know really making them optimal. So this research program is designed to get us back to the Apollo era, where you have individual spacesuits. But if you could 3D print them cheaply, then you could afford to do a few things. First of all you could, you could afford to have make an individual space suit for each astronaut. You can also afford to replace parts as they wear out, right? Which is going to be important. And you could also print them on site. You could print them on the Moon or on Mars. So again if you're going to occupy the Moon or mars for a long period of time the ability to 3D print your spacesuits there is huge. You know again this this is a phase one research granted, they're just sort of looking into like how could we even approach this, how can we accomplish this goal. You know what technologies would be used, what fabrics, what systems would we use etc. So, this could be like the next kind of approach after the Artemis suits that are being developed for the next generation, maybe by the time we're sending people to Mars we'll have these customized 3D printed based on body scan you know space suits. But I think definitely we need to move in this direction. Because space suits are inherently bulky and uncomfortable etc. Having them really finely fit for each astronaut is is like the best way to improve their functionality. The final one I'm going to talk about, again there was a bunch of them, but the final one I want to talk about was a proposal to deal with cosmic rays.

B: Yeah baby.

S: So we've talked about this before, there is currently no way to shield against cosmic rays. Remember there's two kinds of radiation in space, there's the solar wind, which is very variable it like is, it could be very minimal and then there could be a solar storm. But the it's more lower energy radiation we can shield against that. Right even just like water could shield against solar wind. And astronauts just need to get to a better shielded part of a ship or a station when the windows storm is coming. But cosmic rays are super high energy. And we have nothing that can effectively shield against them. Obviously we could just make super thick shielding but you can't, we can't afford the weight to to have our rockets or spaceships or whatever shielded you know on the Moon and on Mars. We're going to have to be underground.

B: Lava tubes baby.

S: But even getting to and back from Mars would exceed you know an astronaut's lifetime exposure to cosmic rays. So that's a huge problem. So, this is a, this is a proposal for a system that would at least reduce the issue of cosmic rays. It won't eliminate it. Yeah we learned that if you have anything less than complete shielding it actually makes the situation worse because─

E: Traps it.

S: ─if any of the cosmic rays get, yeah, they get through the shielding, then they're trapped inside, where they zip around causing tons of damage. And so you have to have either like complete shielding or just just let it pass through you, you know. And just deal with the background radiation.

J: Steve, they clearly need the Water Bear DNA to protect their, remember that news item?

S: Yeah, exactly. So the problem is, what's the exposure, like six months or something, like maybe you can get to Mars but it'd be hard to get to Mars and back without, without exceeding your safe exposure. So again when we asked NASA about this what's your plan on dealing with cosmic rays their answer "was get there fast".

B: And deal with it [inaudible] I think she said too.

S: Yeah, yeah and try to figure out how to you know treat people so it doesn't to treat the damage that it does, not really great. All right so this is the CREW HaT: Cosmic Radiation Extended Warding using the Halbach Torusar system. What this basically is, is a magnetic field. And it's just a magnetic field in a specific design too so you can have a very powerful magnetic field outside of the crew compartment but, but minimize the magnetic field inside the crew compartment because it wouldn't be good to have a really powerful magnetic field where you need to also have electronic equipment and tools and stuff you know. They calculate, again, this is not just proof of concept kind of thing, they need to build a scale model of this, and you know see if they can get it to work. But they project that a full-scale one could reduce the cosmic rays that reach the crew compartment by 50%.

B: That's huge. Wow.

S: Yeah that's it, that would double basically that the time that astronauts could spend in transit, so that would make getting to Mars much more plausible. So that, so that would be good. Maybe they can get that figure even higher you know, who knows. And again this doesn't, this is diverting the cosmic rays, so it doesn't have the problem of trapping them, like insufficient shielding would have. So yeah so that and this is something that we've we've mentioned before. Like yeah, use magnetic fields but it would be really difficult etc, etc. But never tried to actually design─

B: But 50% is you know something.

S: Yeah but you know 50% is 50% so you know it's it's all about time. So if we can get there faster and we can slow down the rays and maybe give them some of that tardigrade you have proteins or whatever. We get to the point where yeah that where you know you could spend years in space right, if you had to. And that's going to be like traveling is is the big problem. If you're in a low Earth orbit station, you're protected by Earth's magnetic field, if you're on the Moon or Mars you could be underground. But if you're traveling between locations, that's where you get your exposure, because spaceships just can't be shielded. It would be way too heavy. I also think we're going to need to, like if we're going to like regularly be going, this is again where we get back to this idea of the space travel infrastructure is going to be complicated and multifaceted. For example we may need to build a ship, like a train that goes back and forth from the Earth to Mars and once you know, this ship could be big, it could be big enough to rotate even maybe it could be, it could be shielded because it could be basically like a hollowed-out asteroid or something. And then once you get it on that trajectory where it's basically in an orbit that takes it from the Earth to Mars and back again, you just you can just accelerate astronauts in a rock and get them to that ship. But then they spend you know most of the journey in a heavily shielded large ship you know, where they're not exposed to cosmic rays. Something like that will also have to be done, if we're going to be regularly traveling in space. But the idea of like when you watch any science fiction movie like oh we're going to get in the Millennium Falcon, zip into space and fly around in the Millennium Falcon you just have to assume, they're just ignoring the problem. And if you're going to try to retcon you just have to assume that whatever that glass they're looking through is some magical material that completely shields them from cosmic rays. Even though they never mention it. But and sometimes like in some science fiction they're like even exposed to space you know like there isn't no shielding, no mention of how it's being dealt with but that's going to be, cosmic rays are going to be like the main limiting factor on traveling in space.

B: Been saying for years.

E: (laughs) We should have listened to you Bob, why didn't we?

S: But it's good to know that NASA is like you know they're these are significant grants, you know, but they're, they're spreading their bets out this is just like yeah just find some solutions to these problems you know.

B: Pretty big, pretty important.

Biological Sex (1:00:45)


S: Cara, you're going to talk about, this is a, this is a a tricky issue, it's going to take a bit. The yeah we, this has come up previously on the SGU, I know we talked about it even before you were on the show Cara, but the the idea of whether or not biological sex is strictly binary and─

C: Spoiler, it's not.

S: ─spoilers, not. And which we have said before. Now, I do want to frame this up a little bit before you launch into this discussion. Because obviously there is now a political culture context here and which means that people have a lot of strong opinions about it, even skeptics. This is one of those issues where I find that skeptics are divided, mainly because they're poorly informed. And so that is an opportunity. And of course that is a situation that is entirely fixable, right? Because skeptics I think are good at responding to actual information.

C: So do you think for, especially within the skeptic community that this is more of a knowledge deficit problem than let's say a motivated reasoning problem?

S: No it's both because because the people who have the knowledge deficit problem are the same people who have the motivated reasoning.

C: Right, right.

S: But I it's so it's very similar to the anti-GMO issue. Like the people who are anti-GMO were anti-GMO for ideological reasons but it was fueled by direct misinformation about GMOs about the technology, about the history etc. With these issues I'd like to start with the science but just─

C: Oh absolutely.

S: To frame it up just very very very quickly, there's actually, this is has to do with trans health care, right? That's what this is about and this is obviously now the latest culture war that is happening. But there's actually four issues here and they don't necessarily all have to line up in one direction or another. And we're only going to talk about the most basic layer, which is a scientific question is biological sex binary. But also there's the question then of what should be the approach to trans health care? And there's two models, there's the trans for, there's the gender affirming model and the gender critical model. So that's one debate. And then even within the gender affirming model there's questions about individual medical interventions and is the risk benefit there, what's the evidence etc. And then the final layer is what are the ethics of doing these kind of interventions on minors, on people who are not yet independent adults and what do you do if a child and a parent disagree with whether or not they should have a medical intervention. So we're not going to get into all of those things. And of course that blends into what about sports and all this other stuff.

C: Yeah especially, especially not with regards to the transgender community I think maybe there will be some little touches when we talk about intersex individuals, which we'll get to because sometimes a medical decision has to be made. And so what is what is the approach there. But but I completely agree Steve, like what I think we should do today is just lay the groundwork for this very question. Even backing away a little bit, just to be clear. I want to kind of make a clear statement about the fact that there are a lot of different ways to slice and dice sex and gender. And you know you hear a lot of terms being thrown around cisgender, transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, non-binary. And I think a lot of times people put all these things in the same box, and there are a lot of really good educational tools online. One that we often use in psychology training you can google it, it's called the Genderbread person and it actually shows the difference between sort of like, there's gender identity, there's attraction both sexual and romantic, there's gender expression, there's sex, different sex characteristics. And what are those and so today what we're going to focus on is sex. And when I say sex I don't mean like we're going to be talking about the fun thing that we call sex. I'm talking about the sex, like the biological sex or the characteristics of sex or all the different ways that we can talk about the traditional, which we know is probably, not probably, is definitely not accurate binary of male versus female sex. I think that maybe in future conversations we could have conversations about gender, we could have conversations about identity and expression. But right now we're going to focus specifically on this concept of what is biological sex, how do we define it. Is the term biological sex the most appropriate and then of course is it binary. And like we said, spoiler, it's not. But I like this approach of thinking of it as as being bimodal. And so I think we'll start there and then we'll sort of backtrack. So when we talk about bimodality I'm not sure if that's a concept that comes naturally to a lot of people. I don't know if you guys remember way back in like your early math classes when you would learn measures of central tendency. But you learned about the mean, median and the mode, right? The average, the median and these are all different ways to say that's sort of the central point of a population or of a sample. So we often talk about the average, that's if you add everybody up and then divide by the number of everybody's. And then we say on average you know, on average people have two arms but not everybody has two arms. On average people you know have, I don't know, brown eyes. But of course not everybody has brown eyes. But on average we could say that and then you have the median, which is sort of the point in a row of frequencies, that falls in the middle, and that's not always going to give you the same answer, as the mean. And then you have the mode. And the mode is let's say we're looking at a certain feature, eye color, and we want to say, you know we take a group of of kids in a class and then we say, what color are your eyes, and for every blue eyed person we put a tick mark in that column, for every brown eyed person we put a tick mark, for every green eyed person we put a tick mark. And then we'll see you know what is the mode, it's the most frequent expression. So when we talk about something being bimodal, it literally looks like a normal curve, except it has two bumps instead of one. Can everybody envision that? And the big difference here, that you know we're talking about something that's kind of visual using statistics on an auditory platform, but the big issue here is that in between those two bumps, in between those two modes, there is a fuzzy area. And when we think about something as being binary, we're trying to define it as though it's either or. Either everybody falls as being biologically male or everybody falls as being biologically female. But the truth of the matter is there are fuzzy individual cases, in which that sort of taxonomy simply isn't sufficient. And so we're not saying here that there are 400 genders. We're not saying here, and maybe you know depending on your categorizational system you could list a lot of different concepts of gender. But when we specifically are talking about sex, which refers to a lot of different things. It refers to your genotype, it refers to your external or internal genitalia. It refers to your gametes, sperm versus egg, it refers to sex hormones. But sadly we can't take any of those one things out of context. They all play on each other. So there's a very strong, nature-nurture component here. There's the genetics, this is what is coded in your DNA and then there's the sort of epigenetic phenomenon, the environmental phenomenon of the, of the the environment of gestation. What we end up seeing is that in close to 2% of especially here in the US because that's where we're pulling our numbers, of the general population close to 2% of births don't fall cleanly into the sex binary. And there are a lot of different examples of that. So I mentioned before this term intersex. So intersex individuals are individuals where it's not a very clean distinction. And it could be for any of the reasons that I just mentioned, it could be for example and maybe, maybe Steve you can help me come up with some of these examples, like a baby that's born with a larger than normal clitoris, that is kind of hard to tell at birth whether that's actually penile tissue or clitoral tissue because of course they come from the same developmental tissue. Or it could be a baby that's born with both a vagina and testes. It could be a baby that's born with ovaries and testes or neither of those gonads. There are a lot of different examples of intersex, it's not one thing.

S: Yeah one dramatic example is you know there are people walking around today, who were identified as female when they were born, they are women right, they look, they look like women, they, they think, they, they live their life as a woman.

C: Right so they have a female gender identity also.

S: Yeah everything right, the external genitalia, everything. They have no idea that they are XY chromosome, no idea, because they're XY but they developed along a female biological pathway because of their receptors were insensitive to hormones, right? So─

C: Right, testosterone.

S: ─yeah so the signal didn't get through and therefore to basically make them develop along the male pathway, so they develop along the female pathway even though they're XY. So the thing, one way to look at this, so we got yeah we're it's, sex is still bimodal, there is no third sex, there's no other axis, it's just a male-female axis. But every aspect blends in a complicated way in the middle and you can have almost any permutation of the different kinds of features that are typically male or typically female. And any scheme that you come up with to say that it's strictly binary breaks down in the middle. So you can't say it's chromosome, if you're XY you're male, but what about XY females? You can't say it's gametes because there are literally people who have ovo sperm, they have mixed gametes. There is no, there's no biological marker that's 100 binary in terms of male or female. It all breaks down in the middle. And of course─

C: It all brakes down in the middle.

S: ─of course the brain is a sexual organ as well. And there are features of you know in terms of sexual attraction and also gender identity that are developmental, that and along this you know sexually dimorphic system in the brain. And so that's part of sex too you know, part of biological sex is your sexual orientation and your gender identity.

C: And your gender identity, yeah, it's who you're attracted to, it's how you identify as yourself in the world, it's all of these different components, that by the way don't follow the same path. And I think that's where the Genderbread person like teaching tool can be really important. Because I think for those who just simply live in regions or live in communities for which they haven't had overt exposure to people who are different from themselves, unfortunately they may make assumptions that if somebody has a specific gender identity they necessarily then have a specific sexual orientation. And that is simply not true. All of these things can vary in all of these directions. So somebody can be a you know cis woman who is a lesbian, somebody can be a trans man who is attracted to women or is attracted to men or is attracted to both. And so that's why it's really important that we sort of look at those things separately. But kind of going back to the point you were making Steve. Almost thinking about it from like a bottom-up developmental model. All along the pathway there can be differences. So like you said, there can be basic genetic, we're talking like karyotype, like chromosomal differences. There are people with Turner syndrome which is XO, it's a single X chromosome and no second chromosome. There is Klinefelter syndrome which is XXY. There are individuals who we know that there are a lot of individuals kind of the "super male syndromes" which is not I think a very good term but you often hear it, who are X with multiple Y's. And so not only can the chromosomes differ but then you can have like you mentioned, sensitization to sex hormones that differ, based on different developmental things that can happen in the womb.

S: And also genetics like, there's like 16 other genes that influence the response of cells─

C: To sex hormones.

S: ─to sex hormones, how about this Cara, there are hybrids, right? There are people who have some of their cells are XY and some of their cells are XX.

C: Yeah it's like a chimeric.

S: Yeah they're chimeras yeah yeah yeah.

C: It's really cool. And so yeah across the board we see this, we see this. So we've got you know differences in chromosomal makeup, we've got differences in sensitization or quantity of sex hormones during development. We also then, what that leads to sometimes is differences in both internal and external genitalia, and also differences in gonads and gametes, right? So the genitalia being the gonads but the actual gonads that are responsible for producing gametes and then the gametes themselves the sperm and the egg as you mentioned. And so some people don't produce either, some people produce both. And here's the rub, is that very often, and we think about this sadly from a sort of efficiency perspective. But when we think about the development of a fetus, one way to view it, which I don't know if it's really the best way, but Steve this is how we learned about it in developmental biology, and you took it before I did, so I assume you learned about it this way too. Is that sort of the default development is female and then female fetuses can become masculinized by testosterone.

S: Yeah that's that's that was the dogma when I was in biology as well.

C: And I think that a lot of people still sort of stick with this dogma although it's obviously a lot more complicated than that. Totally more complicated. But so what ends up happening is that sadly, when a child is born, a child is born intersex or a child is born with let's say forward-facing external genitalia that's ambiguous, very often historically the decision was made in the room to perform a surgery that very often feminized because it was simply easier to cut away, than it was to reshape. And so the surgery which was made long before the child hit puberty, long before the child developed a gender identity, long before anybody knew what different features were happening within the child's brain, which of course as we mentioned the brain is a is a part of a sex organ, right, it has these features necessarily sort of coded into it and also changing with epigenetics and with experience. And sadly this decision was made for the child before anybody had any real evidence as to this child's sex. And maybe that child would have grown up to identify as male, maybe that child would have grown up to identify as non-binary, maybe the intersex, a phenotype, the intersex phenotype would have translated to a sort of non-binary gender identity. But the fact is we never know and this is where we often will see gender dysphorias.

S: Yeah but to clarify, today that doesn't happen.

C: But there are a lot of people walking around today who experienced that.

S: Absolutely but the more of the standard now is, so unfortunately children are assigned a biological sex at birth based upon a casual look at their external genitalia.

C: Right, a glance, like does it look more like a pee-pee [inaudible]

S: They have a penis or a vagina, they have a penis it's a boy, if they have a vagina it's a girl. As I said, they could have a vagina but be XY but no one's to do that investigation, right? But if they have ambiguous genitalia they don't just say okay we're going to choose female and then cut off, they're going to, they will do, they will look at the chromosomes, they will look at genetics and will look at hormone levels. They will do a more thorough analysis. So that is more of the standard today, which is good.

C: Which is good, it's moving in the right direction but it still takes the decision out of the hands of the individuals.

S: Yeah of the child, yeah.

C: And, and it sort of is still a best approximation, based on the available evidence at the time, which may or may not reflect the experience during development. Because, when a child is born they are, they haven't yet gone through puberty, they haven't yet experienced levels of development.

S: You cannot tell someone's sexual orientation by looking at their genitalia at birth, right?

C: Oh god no.

S: I mean do we all agree with that?

C: Yes.

S: And the idea that like sexual orientation is a social choice or it's whatever, is obviously discredited and─

C: Absolutely.

S: And it's in a homophobic kind of stance. By the same token you cannot tell someone's gender identity by looking at their gender genitalia at birth either. It just, it's bimodal so 98% of the time you'll be correct, but we're talking about the 2% where you're not, where it's that assumption turns out to be more complicated, or it's just essentially not correct.

C: And even if we look at the low end of that. Like 0.1 to 0.2% of births, where there really is ambiguous or like intense variation in genital anatomy that still translates─

S: To a lot of people.

C: ─yeah, thousands of babies born every year. And I think what's the estimation like 40 million adults?

S: It's a lot of people.

C: And so that's why when people sort of I think minimize the idea of well what is the difference between a binary and a bimodal if we're just talking about you know one or two percent in the middle, well how many people live in this country?

S: But here's the thing, those are the people we're talking about, right? That's the thing, that makes no sense, like yeah those are the exceptions, that's pathology, whatever. However dismissive term you'll say this actually isn't, this is just part of the variation of humanity, right?

C: Yeah part of normal variation.

S: And animals too like this, in animals it's even you know more incredible you know how much diversity there is in biological sex. I mean the things like everything in biology we think of we think of archetypes. Like even with like a species, there's an archetype of the species but in reality there is no simple categorization in biology because all boundaries are fuzzy. That's just the way biology works, it is messy. And just from a skeptical, logical point of view we encounter this a lot, like people who don't like the proposed solutions to climate change argue climate change isn't real. Rather than saying okay well climate change is real, I just don't like your proposed solution. Like that's of too much nuance for the average person, right? Everyone, they want everything to be lined up in the same way. So there is a legitimate conversation to have about how to optimally treat people who identify as transgender. In terms of medical interventions, the state of the evidence, all of that. That's where the conversation should be had. But for the people who, in my experience, you know, who take the gender critical approach also deny that biological sex, bimodal and non-binary, and they make really simplistic arguments about how biology is binary. And then they try to take like the skeptical scientific high ground by saying if you don't believe that, you're somehow delusional or politically correct. It's like no. You're just biologically ignorant, that is not the way biology works. Or you could again, you could try to wave it away by saying well those are the exceptions, but it's like no, those are people, and those are the people we're talking about, the people who don't completely fit into one of these two buckets.

C: And that's the point just like we've heard that statement over and over that like, it doesn't matter if you believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, it's gonna or that you believe the earth is round you know whatever. Like the sun's going to come up regardless. And here's the thing, whether you believe this or not, these are real people, real human beings.

E: Right the humanity of it all.

C: And when we say you don't exist, or your identity does not, not just your identity but your your experience as a human being is somehow wrong or it's not fitting in the mold the appropriate way, what you're actually doing is you're you're minimizing their existence.

E: Yeah it's total dehumanization.

C: Absolutely.

S: They're trying to find them out of existence actually.

C: Up to 1.7% of the US population it's estimated are intersex. So they they have anatomy and physiology that present specifically as intersex. That's five million people.

S: Yeah.

C: Five million people. And that's just intersex individuals, we're not even talking about gender identity.

S: Yeah the more subtle, more subtle changes, yeah.

C: And what happens when we sort of codify a system that utilizes a gender binary as opposed to a gender bimodal distribution with a fuzzy demarcation in the middle, is that we necessarily make systems that don't allow for these people to hold space. And we see examples over and over and over. If somebody is identified as intersex, neither male nor female, how do they operate in a world that forces them to choose, at every turn. And that's the real issue I think when the social justice conversation comes up. But it's rooted in science and the science shows even as something as simple, and I shouldn't say simple, but as clear as day as the intersex individual. That individual exists in the world and that individual faces these issues. You know this is not, even before we start to talk about gender identity. I think this is a good starting point to look at the science because it's so clear, yet it still drives I think a lot of debate that as you mentioned Steve, often is really steeped in motivated reasoning.

S: Yeah and again I think I've seen it go both ways, like people are starting from a misconception about biological sex and that kind of sends them on the wrong path in terms of thinking about the implications of it. But I also see people working the other way, like they're starting with more of an ideological position and then and then they backfill in, well sex is binary, so that justifies my position. So again we're, I'm not we're not trying to even take any firm positions on the social you know medical political issues here. Just, if we're gonna have this conversation, we have to start from the common ground of what the science says. At least don't deny the science or pretend that it's something that it isn't. And you can still get to a lot of different positions starting with legitimate science, but let's at least do that, and don't immediately have this knee jerk, well, you know, anything that's not binary is pseudoscience and you're just delusional or fooling yourself, it's political correctness. We're substituting political correctness for science, nope, we're recognizing the science, you're the one who's not recognizing the science.

C: We're taking a bottom-up approach.

S: The bottom line is, for a lot of these questions, there's no right or wrong answer. Like the sports question, I personally think like there's no right or wrong answer here. It's there's no perfect way to do this that's perfectly fair to everybody, because the system is messy. It's not going to fit any clean categorization system that we want. Or maybe need to use for something like a competitive sport. So we just have to pick our pick our poison, you know we have to figure out what's going to be the best compromise. It's like, I've equated it with like planets and dwarf planets. Is that an objective demarcation line? Of course not. It just has to serve some purpose for us, you know?

C: That sort of idea, and this isn't even a conversation that we had, it's a deeper conversation and it really does relate to the demarcation problem right between like what is science and pseudoscience. This idea of taxonomy, of taking a sort of "natural order in the world" and then trying to bucket it and trying to describe it using very specific language. Always bites us in the ass. Because there is always an exception to whatever taxonomic rule we have developed. And we have to be careful, and we have to be so humble to remember that even the words male and female are human conventions. They're labels we use to describe things that we see as different. But there's always going to be a wiggly, fuzzy place where we can't cleanly demarcate. And what we don't want to do, is we don't want the people who fall in that place to feel as though their humanity is lost. I think, I think one thing that's you know, I made the point earlier and I just want to sort of reiterate it before we finish is exactly what you were talking about Steve, that like sometimes the motivated reasoning comes from a place that's like agenda driven. Sometimes it comes from a place of lack of knowledge, sometimes it comes from a place that's agenda-driven. I think sometimes the hybrid of those two things, the hybridization comes in when there's misunderstanding, again, about the differences between biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation. All these different measurements that are discrete, they are discrete things that can be related but don't necessarily go together. And I think oftentimes this feels like a complicated topic and people lump it all together. And those are two very separate things and that's not to be little, I do think these arguments about transgender rights are valid and they're important, but here on this show, we are a science show, we wanted to get down to the science.

S: Yeah, because you have, yeah, you have to agree that climate change is happening and then you could talk about what to do about it, right?

C: Exactly. And maybe, maybe listen to the people who are most affected by the climate change. Don't sit and talk about it in a room and not let those people into the conversation because they're the ones who are actually dealing with it and I think that that's another point that we often.

S: Sure but in this case, just this is also a case where it's like, just talk to an expert, the experts, there's no controversy here, when you're talking about actual experts. You know what I mean?

C: Oh for sure.

S: You say the idea that that biological sex is strictly binary is like laughably naive. And any expert will tell you that, there is there's a strong consensus here because the evidence is really blatant, you know.

C: Right and any "expert" that argues against it, if you dig deep enough you'll realize a: there's motivated reasoning there and b: they're very likely not an expert in that field.

S: Yeah they're not appropriate.

C: They're probably like oh a social psychologist or something, who's arguing that. Or you know somebody who's like a different kind of of biologist, who actually never studied the core literature that's involved here.

S: Right, yeah, just talk to an expert you know, they'll lay it out for you.

J: Steve should you talk to an expert or should you talk to a sexpert?

C: Oh, I like that.

S: Sexpert?

J: It's good.

C: Sexpert, yeah.

"Habitables" & Who's That Noisy? (1:28:47)

Answer to previous Noisy:
Red-bellied Piranha being held out of water

New Noisy (1:35:43)

[Series of human-sounding "ehh"s]

J: ... If you have an idea of what this Noisy is, or if you heard something cool this week, all you've got to do: email me at WTN@theskepticsguide.org.

Science or Fiction (1:36:20)

Theme: Ukraine

Item #1: Ukraine produces more sunflowers seeds than the rest of the world combined.[5]
Item #2: Ukrainians rarely smile in public, and in fact would find it rude if you smiled at them.[6]
Item #3: The world’s deepest metro station is in Kyiv, Arsenalna station at 105.5 meters.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction more sunflower seeds
Science ukrainians rarely smile
Science
deepest metro station
Host Result
Steve sweep
Rogue Guess
Cara
ukrainians rarely smile
Bob
ukrainians rarely smile
Jay
deepest metro station
Evan
ukrainians rarely smile

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

Cara's Response

Bob's Response

Jay's Response

Evan's Response

Steve Explains Item #1

Steve Explains Item #2

Steve Explains Item #3

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:44:52)

Keep your identity separate from your opinions. [Your opinions] are objects in a box you carry with you and should be easily replaceable if it turns out they're no good. If you think that the opinions in the box are who you are, then you'll cling to them despite any evidence to the contrary. Bottom line, if you want to always be right, you need to always be prepared to change your mind.

CGP Grey, American-Irish educational YouTuber and podcaster

Signoff (1:46:35)

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.

[top]


Today I Learned

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[8]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description

Notes

References

Vocabulary


Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png