SGU Episode 510

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SGU Episode 510
April 18th 2015
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 509                      SGU 511

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


BN: Bill Nye

Quote of the Week

His argument is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.

Abraham Lincoln

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Remembering Perry - He came up with the name Skeptic's Guide to the Universe

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (2:22)[edit]

  • Lise Meitner and Ida Noddack Tacke: The women of fission.

S: So, Bob, you're gonna start us off with our new segment the Forgotten Superheroes of Science.

B: Yes, this one I'm calling the "Women of Fission." These two women here there is Lise Meitner and Ida Noddack. And they were respectfully physicists and chemists who made a surprising and insightful and also critical insights into the discovery of fission. Ever hear of them? I hadn't.

I'll start with Ida Noddak. She was a German chemist who discovered the element Rhenium, and she also was the first person to ever idea of fission. And the story behind it is interesting. Enriko Fermi, very famous physicist, was doing an experiment where he bombarded uranium with neutrons, and he said, "Hey! I think I may have created transuranic elements here." Which would have been quite a discovery.

But she wrote a paper and said, "Wait a second. You really didn't do that. The controls of your experiment were kind of off. But what you may have done is fragmented the uranium, and created these large pieces, which essentially is fission." And no one had ever suggested that before. And of course, her comment was ignored. Nobody, it didn't fit in with the mindset of the day. It didn't go anywhere.

And then, Lisa Meitner, who, boy, she got it bad. She was a physicist from Austria. And she was a, her specialty was nuclear physics and radioactivity. Now, she worked with her colleague Otto Han for thirty years - thirty year working relationship with this guy, even after she was exhiled from nazi Germany, they kept up a letter correspondence. And she worked with him and got him through his experiments. She was a critical contributor to that. And not only that, she also gave him the theoretical and mathematical support he needed for his fission experiments, to make it something that people would take seriously. And then on top of all that, she actually was the first to have the insight that the extra energy coming from that experiment was due to Einstein's E=MC squared. I mean, she contributed all this.

S: Those theoretical and mathematical logistics of

B: Yes. And you needed

S: And did the busy work as well as

B: Right

S: Guide the theory of what was going on.

B: Right. You can't just have an experiment and think that's gonna be enough. You need the theoretical and mathematical support, which she offered. So,  who do you think won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for chemistry? F--- Otto Han! He did not give her any credit at all. It was really pathetic. And Scientific American says that this was the number one Nobel snub of all time. It was really bad. 

E: Injustice.

B: So, forget about Otto Han. Remember Lise Meitner,


B: and Ida Noddack; mention them to your friends, perhaps when you're discussing nuclear transmutation of common fissile isotopes.

S: I was just having that conversation the other day with a friend of mine ...

(Evan laughs)

B: Oh yeah, well Brian here, of course, was talking about that.

News Items[edit]

Canadian Parents No Longer Anti-Vaccine (5:15)[edit]

S: So this story's been going around the interwebs recently. A Canadian mother, Tara and Gavin Hills, mother and father, from Konota Canada - Konota Canada, say that ten times fast.

E: Cannot

S: Konota Canada.

E: Konota

S: They have seven children, aged ten months to ten years old. And she partially vaccinated her first few children, and then

B: What does that mean? Partially vaccinated.

S: Well, they got some of their vaccines in their schedule, but not the whole schedule. She stopped part way through the vaccine schedule, and then didn't vaccinate any of her subsequent children. So, four of her children were completely unvaccinated. Three were partially unvaccinated. She says, I can see the quote. "I got scared. I got spooked. I thought there's a lot of smoke. There must be fire. So we stopped vaccinated our children."

E: Yeah, that makes sense.

S: Yeah, so she was afraid, because she was reading a lot of misinformation online, scaring her off of vaccines. This is the effect of the anti-vaccine movement.

B: Is there a fallacy in there, where there's smoke, there's fire.

S: Yeah, yeah, there is, actually. We talked about that on my workshop on Thursday.

J: But it's not, it's something that we can understand them, when you think about it.

S: Yeah

J: The vast majority of the people out there don't have an education on this stuff. They're not reading the stuff that we read. And what do you do? Think about all the stuff you aren't an expert in.

S: Yeah, even if they are finding some of the scientific or reassuring articles online, it's easier to be scared. You know, the stuff that will resonate with a parent. "I don't want to inject my child with something that's gonna directly harm them!" We have more of a fear of causing direct harm, than allowing harm to occur through inaction. So, just emotion - this is what's - what I like about this case is that she lays out the exact emotional case that we are talking about. What happens, what can happen through this misinformation.

The logical fallacy, or at least one that's in there, she's begging the question. Like, where there's smoke there's fire. Well, that assumes that the only cause of smoke is this particular fire that you're talking about. It could be something else. It could be a smoke machine, which is what I think a better analogy here, there's misinformation. It's a misinformation is the smoke. And no, there doesn't have to be what they're telling you to be afraid of.

So, anyway, the reason why this is, her particular experience is circulating, is because all seven of her children recently came down with whooping cough, a vaccine preventable illness. And, when that happened, she became more afraid of infectious disease than of the anti-vaccine misinformation. So she flipped! She wrote a blog post saying that she's no longer anti-vaccine. That she feels she was victimized by misinformation.

She, so, her children were coughing, and whooping cough, as the name implies, has a very characteristic cough that's very violent. In fact, children can die, just because they can't catch their breath. Their cough is so bad, they just can't catch their breath. She said it's like, this is a quote from her: "The kind of cough that stops a parent's heart. You get a perfect line." Yes, that's the kind, so she was more afraid of the disease, than of the vaccines. And then she flipped and said, "Okay, and now I'm gonna get my kids vaccinated."

A little too late, all seven have whooping cough, but she also fears that she might have given it, her family gave it to her sister's newborn.

J: Oh...

S: If have a newborn, you know, they shouldn't be around anybody who isn't fully vaccinated.

J: Did you, imagine her circumstance. She has seven kids. Probably went to her house

S: While, yeah.

J: She had seven sick children in her house. And I'm sure that was a show stopper for her.

S: She says, right now, my family is living the consequences of misinformation and fear,

E: Right

S: which I think is astute. Exactly.

B: Steve, would the vaccine help, even a tiny bit at that point?

S: No.

B: Just like,

S: The whole point of the vaccine is that you get an immune response that then primes you for the next time.

J: Right

S: So then you get what's called an anemnestic response, you get, your immune system remembers. And instead of taking weeks to build up your immunity, you have an immediate, robust immune response. By the time you get that effect, the whooping would be over. So, yeah, it's too late to vaccinate with this particular illness once you're already sick.

J: Do you know, are there any lasting effects to this, if you ...

S: To whooping cough?

J: Yeah

S: Well, yeah, I mean. So most people survive with modern health care, 'cause we're good at treating acute illnesses like this. But it's risky. I mean, yeah, you can have horrible consequences up to and including death. Just throw some statistics at you. So there's lots of graphs of the, this is the death rate from mortality per million from whooping cough. You can see, in 1901, three hundred and fifty people per million just in the general population died of whooping cough a lot of people, thousands of people in the US died every year from whooping cough. And then, it steadily decreases from 1900 to around 1950. That's because of improved medical care.

J: Without the vaccine?

S: No, no no no. The death rate of everything decreased from 1900 to 1950, of any treatable, manageable illness. So if you look at all of the horrible infectious diseases that vaccines prevent, they all show a similar graph. If you look at death, and so the anti-vaxxers will show this graph, they see that vaccines  not doing anything. The disease is already gone by the time, the vaccine kicks in in 1945. And you could see the drop at  that point.

And then the modern vaccine kicks in  in 1955. And then it really plummets. So the vaccines do have an effect, but when you go all the way out, and include the incredibly high death rate from prior to really having scientific medicine it obscures the effect of the vaccine. So, that's just a trick that the anti-vaxxers use. They use that with not just whooping cough, but with other illnesses as well. Like, measles is a perfect example. You see the same graph with measles. But anyway, the vaccine did ultimately decrease the mortality rate down significantly. You could see, in like 1996, even the infant mortality rate is down to practically zero. But now, it's coming back, because of the anti-vaccine movement. This is just sort of an index case, as we call it. This woman and her family, it just illustrates all of the aspects of why the anti-vaccine movement is dangerous.

J: Is that washing hands, could it be as simple as cleanliness, and

S: Well, it always helps. Good hygiene always helps.

J: Anti-flammatories.

S: No, anti-flammatories aren't gonna prevent the spread of this. But it's a very infectious disease.

J: No, meaning, when they treat someone that has whooping cough.

S: Yeah

J: You think that treatment was what changed

S: No, what's keeping people alive is that we can treat their lung disease. We can intibate them if we need to. We can 

J: Right, okay.

S: Yeah, it's more heavy duty of steroids if we need, we can give more heavy duty treatments.

B: Steve, that graph ended in '96. What would we see in the past twenty years. Would we see a little bump?

S: It was flat, and then there's a little bump, yeah, in the last few years.

J: That's the Jenny McCarthy bump.

S: Yeah, the (Evan laughs)

S: Jenny bump, yeah.

J: All right. 

S: You could call that. 

Noticing Spiders (12:20)[edit]

Solar Sail (23:26)[edit]

Mars One Not Going Anywhere (30:53)[edit]

NASA Expects to Find Life (41:05)[edit]

(Commercial at 50:03)

Lava Tubes on the Moon (51:47)[edit]

Special Report (51:06)[edit]

  • Discusses his views on GMOs

S: Bill, do you mind if I ask you a non-astronomy -related question?

BN: Uh, no, you just did. Yeah.

S: Good

(Audience and Evan laugh)

BN: Go ahead, yes.

S: All right. So, my listeners would eviscerate me if I didn't ask you this question. You probably know what's coming.

BN: I probably do.

S: A lot of the skeptical movement is fairly pro-GMO. It has been highly critical of

BN: Genetically modified organisms.

S: Genetically modified organisms. And critical of a lot of the anti-GMO movement, which is largely pseudoscientific. Previously, you have stated you were concerned about the effects of GMO, but then you've given some indications that maybe your opinion on this matter has evolved.

BN: Evolved

S: Evolved.

BN: Given some indications. Yeah, so I did a show called The Eyes of Nye, and I've had some very, interviewed some people who had really strong opinions, and they, I agree that if - here's how it went. There's two questions, two words, rather, excuse me. The first word, we have to talk about is "modify." The second word we have to talk about is "safe."

So when you modify organisms, people have been doing that for, how long have they been farming? Ten thousand years.

S: Ten thousand.

BN: And I remind everybody, there is nothing natural about farming, in a sense that humans are a product of evolution, and so on and so forth. But a farm, if you let it go, it revers to a grassland or forest or whatever you have the situation. All right, so, to modify organisms, you know, the grapes and tomatoes, and cows, and whatever we have runnin' around today, are a result of ten thousand years of messin' around.

E: Selective breeding.

BN: Selective breeding, what Darwin called artificial selection. Now, artificial in the 19th century, I think a little different usage than, you know, except for certain people at certain cocktail parties, humans are not really artificial. 


BN: But they're inducing changes. Okay, or generation to generation. So that's one kind of modification. And so the question is, when you put a gene in from somewhere else into an organism from a different species, transspecies species,

S: Transgenic

BN: Transgenic

S: Yeah

BN: Is that thing still, let's say two questions, safe to eat, but much much much more importantly to me, is it safe in the ecosystem? So, what happened, I think, having done some more research, genetically modified organisms, soy beans, and corn, and cotton, were introduced kind of the same weekend as the Bovine Spongiform encephalitis, the mad cow disease (BSC) in Europe. And people in Europe got very concerned. If you got the Ministry of Agriculture that thinks it's okay to feed ground up cows to cows, that is, to force cows to be cannibals, then can you trust 'em with their genetically modified, transgenic crops? And so it got, in Europe especially, genetically modified organisms got a very bad rap, and because it got conflated, or mixed together, I think, with the BSC thing. All right, what you don't want is the unintended consequences. So when you breed wheat by shaking the pollen from one wheat plant on to the eggs or ova of another, like George Washington did with a magnifying glass, you can be pretty sure that you're not gonna introduce a species that's gonna wreak havoc or unexpected consequences in the ecosystem.

So the great, amazing thing that these guys figured out, was how to put a gene over, okay, so there's an herbicide glyphosate, which goes by the brand name Round Up. And it is like black magic. It inhibits the shichemic acid pathway, the second to last step in plant metabolism, making more plant. It kill it. So if you put Round Up on any green plant, it freaking kills it, unless this plant has been engineered, has a gene, from another species put in it, that allows it to make the shichemic acid, complete the pathway anyway.

So what happened is, with this extraordinary technology, two things happened. First of all, people were frightened by it, 'cause it's so deadly, kills everything, every plant. And the other thing that happened is, everybody started using it! And so, one of the unintended consequences in the US was the monarch butterflies. They're only ten percent of the monarch butterflies left than there used to be even twenty years ago. That's not very long ago, everybody, twenty years ago.

And it's mostly a result of the loss of their habitat. And the loss of their habitat has been urban sprawl, and glyphosate kills milk weed. And milk weed is the plant, there's a couple of varieties of milk weed, but there's one variety of milk weed that the moth of the butterflies just have to have. And so, you can argue, or I argued that by not going about farming in this extraordinary way, you would not have an unintended consequence like the devastation of the monarch butterfly population.

But upon further review, I think the problem is not inherent, not at all, has almost nothing to do with genetically modifying the plants. Instead, it has to do with just every sort of agricultural, urban planning scheme. And, by the way, last week, I flew - I mean, I was in a plane - to Minneapolis, and (Mocking voice) What about your carbon footprint? (/Voice) I know, okay.

I flew to Minneapolis to the butterfly meeting. No, no, no, and so, they have non-governmental organisations and the behated Monsanto. They're trying to figure out how to establish what I describe as a hopscotch highway for Monarch butterflies to get from Mexico to Canada and back. Really, these butterflies are just extraordinary. It's just like, what they heck? I've watched 'em. It's in my book. I've watched 'em. They can fly upwind by flying very, very close to the ground, taking advantage of wind gusts, and stuff. It's really amazing.

One of the things that was not known at this meeting was how far away a butterfly can smell a milk weed. And that seems to me a very important atom that we have to figure out. But they got this big corporation there, and these do-gooder non-profits, like the Pheasants Forever. These are hunters that really like to have birds around in there. But the habitat for huntable birds is the same as the habitat for these butterflies.

And the reason the butterflies are significant:  First of all, they're beautiful. They're iconic. But my claim, and I don't think is an extraordinary, but if you're able to wipe out something as obvious as millions and millions of butterflies, what else have you kind of wiped out without really being aware of, right? S: I agree. I think that the problem is not genetic modification. The problem is that we're trying to feed seven billion people

BN: Yeah

S: By farming.

BN: By the way, these guys, in this business, ConAgra and the hated Monsanto, they're sure that they're gonna have two percent less farmland in thirty years than we have today. And so they believe through modern farming practices, they can feed what'll be around nine billion people in thirty

E: Right

BN: years. Yeah. You know, there was, just a few years ago, there are estimates of twelve billion people. But people think it'll be less. Only nine billion!

S: Nine billion.

BN: And so, my ambivalence about genetically modifying crops has changed, absolutely.

S: Yeah, yeah yeah.

BN: I see that they have great value, but I also warn us all that the unintended consequences, or so-called knock-on consequences are significant, and we really don't know how to solve an obvious, everybody-can-see-it problem, like the monarch butterflies.

S: Right. But there are unintended consequences to not doing things too.

BN: Absolutely

S: So like, not doing GMO's, you end up with more farmland, which has a greater negative impact than planting genetically modified crops.

BN: I will say, just objectively, Monsanto is in a transition from an industrial chemical company, to a biotech company. And objectively, also, the thing that's changed for me, and it's sort of in my defence, these guys can now save, ten thousand genomes in ten minutes. It's some extraordinary number like that. They have increased ten million fold from thirty years ago. Ten million times faster. And it's done with this extraordinary technology that these enzymes that bind to the guanine, adenine, thynine, and sitosine, and then you shine light on it, and these things respond to the specific frequencies of light, and they can assay the gene sequence in almost an instant. It's just, I mean, the speed of light.

And so now, they, it can grow hundreds of thousands of varieties of plants. Not hundreds of thousands of individual plants - everybody does that - hundreds of thousands of varieties of plants. And assess how they interact with the ecosystem. And it reminds me, when I worked at Boeing, I worked for a guy who was the DER, the Designated Engineering Representative for the FAA, for the Federal Aviation Administration. And so the government is trusting a guy who's an engineer, who takes it seriously, whose kids fly on the planes, to be the first line of defence.

And the Department of Agriculture is similar arrangement of these guys. But, I get it. I mean, Monsanto has a long way to go to win hearts. Man, I mean, they just sort of don't, the only people they interact with are the farmers. They don't, you know, so ...

S: Bill, have you ever played Science or Fiction.

BN: Oh yeah! Didn't I do that with you guys a few years ago? Were we drinkin'? Yeah.

S: Yeah, okay.


E: Well, one of us was.

S: We're gonna do it again.

Science or Fiction (1:08:10)[edit]

Item #1: Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel while Burr was the sitting Vice President under Jefferson, making Burr the only Vice President to be a hunted fugitive. Item #2: Andrew Jackson was the target of the first presidential assassination attempt, which he survived because of the unlikely misfiring of two pistols. Item #3: During his presidency Thomas Jefferson proposed a formal alliance with England to resolve their differences, but was opposed by the Federalists, partly leading to the war of 1812.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:21)[edit]

'His argument is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.' - Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Announcements (1:24:07)[edit]

  • SGU 10

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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