SGU Episode 156
|This episode needs: proofreading, formatting, links,
Please help out by contributing!
|How to Contribute|
|SGU Episode 156|
|16th July 2008|
|(brief caption for the episode icon)|
|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
|Quote of the Week|
If you believe everything you read, you better not read.
You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.
S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, today is Wednesday July 16th, 2008, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella,
B: Hey everybody
S: Rebecca Watson
R: Hello everyone
S: Jay Novella
J: Hey guys
S: and Evan Bernstein
E: Hi everyone,
This Day in Skepticism (0:30)
J, B, R: Ooooh
E: Impact continued for several days until July 22nd
S: That was a cool event
B: Yeah, it was awesome
E: It was remarkable, remarkable stuff
S: What was the impact that hit Jupiter with was it thousands of times the impact of, like the Hiroshima bomb. Pretty nasty.
B: I'm sure it was something like that
S: Something like that. But Jupiter's good that way, Jupiter sucks up all those comets so they don't hit us
E: Left that black scar on the surface of Jupiter, which, I don't think anybody really expected that to happen, so they were- it was incredible
J: Did you guys know that the eye of Jupiter is about the size of the Earth?
S: Yes, I did know that
B: Everybody knows that
R: Oh, come on guys, at least act a little impressed
S: Did you know that the picture that you see of Jupiter is-
J: upside-down? Yeah, we know that, get with it.
R: Alright, we're about to have a nerd-off
E: Did you know your eye turns things upside-down and re- well, you know
S: Your brain swaps it back up?
E: That's right, yes
R: Do you know I'm naked?
E: So therefore, is Jupiter really right-side-up, and we're just seeing it upside-down, oh
B: Ha- next
S: We have an interview coming up, another TAM interview, this one with Neil deGrasse Tyson
R: Big fan
S: Yes, excellent
J: He's a cool guy, his talk at TAM was excellent
S: It was stellar
J: It was called 'brain droppings'
R: Ha-ha! Stellar
E: Yeah, that was good
R: I thought it was out of this world, ha-haa
B: It was…cool
S: But first, some news items-
R: It was astronomical! haa
E: Oh, god
Black Hole Hubbub (2:10)
S: The first news item has a bit of an astronomy theme to it as well, Dallas County officials spar over the ‘black hole’ comment.
J: Oh god
S: This is just a bit of ridiculous funniness: the Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, who is white, said it seemed that central collections “has become a black hole” because paperwork reportedly has become lost in the office. Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is black, interrupted him with a loud “Excuse me!” and then corrected his colleague, saying that his office had become a “white hole”. So apparently, commissioner Price took the black hole comment as a racial slur, apparently not knowing what a black hole is
B: or, not even that, you don't have to know what a black hole is, you just know what the expression, the colloquial expression means
S: Yeah, it's pretty obvious, pretty common
B: And he obviously didn't know that either
J: Wait, wait, wait, you can't assume that he didn't know either of those things, because some people are that uptight. Like, the term black hole is no longer acceptable to this person,
R: (skeptically) mmmm-
J: that's how I read it
B: I think we assume ignorance because there's just- you can't have a problem with the expression black hole, because that means you then really should then have expression with black-list, blackmail and all the other expressions with black in it. So, I'm just assuming that he's just stupid.
E: (laughs) When in doubt, assume stupidity.
S: Well, scientifically illiterate, at least. And that also said, using the term white hole, well that would be something that would eject paperwork from it, producing more paperwork, not something that would cause it to disappear.
E: It would've been so much cooler if he'd called him a white dwarf, that would have shown that he knew what was going on.
E: and also given him a cosmic slam.
S: I wonder if the American Indians are upset at the term red giant.
B: Oh God, right?
E: There we go
S: I mean you can take this to an absurd extreme.
B: Yeah, that's my point
R: It's already to the absurd extreme
S: That's right, it is! You can't even satire it. But the interesting thing is, also present at the meeting, Judge Thomas Jones, who is also black, demanded an apology from Mayfield.
E: (in despair) Oh!
S: So he also didn't get the scientific reference of a black hole.
E: Now, isn't that incredible, three lawyers in a room, and two of the three have no clue what a black hole is! It's pathetic!
J: You know, we're moving backwards, guys, we're not moving forward
B: The cool thing is, though, he refused to apologise.
J: He shouldn't
R: Maybe we are moving backwards, if the universe is expanding
S: Actually, the news items get worse and worse from there.
It's Just a Cracker (4:34)
S: The next one I wanted to talk about- it was kind of a slow science news story week.
B: It was, it was.
S: We got some, I don't know if it's the summer slow-down, I don't know, people are- no one's in the lab publishing research, I don't know what it is.
S: But, these are a few funny items. The next one has to do with PZ Myers, the blogger who blogs for Pharyngula. PZ Myers, in addition to doing a science blog, Pharyngula also is an atheist blog, and also he does not shy away from expressing his political opinions on that blog. So it's really his personal blog where he talks about a bunch of different issues, including his atheism.
R: What happened was, it started when this kid in Florida went into a Catholic church and he took communion, and he didn't swallow the wafer like supposedly the Catholic priest turns this cracker into Jesus, and you actually eat the flesh of Jesus. Like, they actually believe that the waver turns into flesh, which is really gross. But set that aside for a second. So the kid takes the cracker outside of the church to go show his friend, and the Catholics freak out over it. First, they try to keep him from leaving, and he runs away, and then it turns into this big uproar, where people are sending him nasty letters, and Catholics are up in arms. Not all Catholics, you know, I think that most Catholics understand that it's really not that big of a deal, but there's a certain subset of the hardcore Catholics who were not having anything of this, including Bill Donohue of, I believe it's called the "Catholic League"? He kind of freaked out about the whole thing. So PZ steps in and reports on the story, and happens to say that he thinks it's all a bunch of crap, that people are coming down too hard on this kid, supposedly there were death threats against the kid, all that-
S: They called it a hate crime, you know, he objected to the characterizing this as a hate crime.
E: Hate crime?
R: Right. And PZ said "you know what? It's a frackin' cracker"
R: as he's- I would never say the word 'frackin', but I'm using his words, 'It's a frackin' cracker'
S: Well, fracking is perfectly cromulent, I mean it's right out of Battlestar Galactica.
S: No, it's Battlestar Galactica lingo, I love that.
R: Ok, nerd
R: So- I prefer 'smegging', ok? It's a smegging cracker
R: That's Red Dwarf, by the way.
S: (laughing) Ok
R: I just out-nerded you, just in case you didn't know. So, PZ says, you know, it's just a cracker, let it go. In fact, PZ says: if anybody out there wants to get another eucharist host, cracker thing and send it to him, he will personally desecrate it in the manner of his choosing.
R: So, you know, and that's-
S: And for some strange reason, the Catholics took offence at that
R: (cheekily) Yeah! I don't know why! (normally) But Bill Donahue sent his minions to, not only pepper PZ with emails, but to also write to PZ's employer – he is a professor for a university – and try to get him fired. And so people went on, and they flooded the university with these angry emails, and then also sent actual death threats to PZ! Over a cracker! It was… it was pure insanity. So wait, but it gets better, PZ took a few of the worst death threats and in order to discourage other death threats from coming in, he posted them to the blog, copy-paste, complete with email address and full headers-
R: -ok? So, one of the death threats came from an email address that was 'so-and-so'@1-800-Flowers.com. And so immediately people are commenting on this post, 'could it really be somebody who works for 1-800-Flowers who's using their work email to send a death threat? They check the IP numbers, and yes! It actually came from the computer of a 1-800-Flowers employee. People start sending that person emails-
R: -and also notifying the IT department at 1-800-Flowers. Well, that person was found, it was a female employee, which surprised a lot of people because of the language, including the C-word, and others. And that employee was fired. Shortly thereafter, that employee's husband stepped forward to say that it was actually him, using his wife's computer to send PZ a death threat.
B: Too late
R: And you know what? It's PZ's fault that the wife got fired!
(sounds of weariness)
R: And that's where we are right now.
R: All over a cracker!
S: The whole affair is officially a 'kerfuffle'
(general mumblings of 'kerfuffle')
R: It's a cracker kerfuffle
S: A cracker kerfuffle, it absolutely is. It was a to-do at the beginning, but it's beyond that now
R: It's upgraded-
S: Upgraded to a kerfuffle
R: -to a kerfuffle, mm-hmm
B: It's not a, like a holy hubbub or-
S: A hubbub?
R: Hubbub? No, but we are quickly approaching mêlée
S: So, a couple of things I wanted to note about this, when Donahue was on the campaign to get PZ fired, his argument was that PZ's blog is accessible from his work computer.
S: Hello! It's on the internet!
R: I think you mean that it was linked from the university's website? You mean?
S: No, his statement says 'accessible from', if he was referring to the fact that there was a link from somewhere, he wasn't even that specific. Maybe he was referring to that, but-
R: I think that's what he meant, because part of the angry letters were to encourage the university to stop linking to PZ's blog from the university website.
S: That may be true, but his argument was that he should be fired, because he was using, somehow, official university computer to access the web- his blogs. His blog is on scienceblogs, it's not on the university website, it's not hosted by the university, I mean, you know, firing somebody because it links to another site? That's ridiculous.
S: And of course, this all becomes a question of freedom of speech. I have no problem with anyone criticizing PZ for what he's doing. PZ has a right to say whatever he wants to say, it's his blog, he could use it to express whatever opinions he wishes, people have a right to criticize him for that on their own venues. But they tried to essentially make the point that PZ doesn't have the right to do what he did, or to criticize Catholic beliefs. And this comes up occasionally, essentially the premise is, that some religionists use, and the recent cartoon incident with the Muslims this came up as well, like, you know, cartoons depicting Mohammed, is that other people, in fact all other people must respect the things that they deem to be sacred. That's the false premise I think they're coming from, so you think that's sacred, so you can revere it, you could, you know, do whatever you think is appropriate, but you can't demand that other people behave as if it's sacred, out of this notion that that's necessary in order for you to have your religious freedom. So I think that's the logical fallacy, false premise, that they're proceeding from. You know, this is- that's free speech.
E: How about the first amendment?
S: You know, burning a flag, if it's part of political speech, that's protected free speech. You know, desecrating a wafer? If that's part of your political free speech, you have the right to do that, you know?
R: Yeah, the thing is, they gave him the cracker, and he didn't sign anything saying 'I will eat the cracker on the premises, and not hold it hostage'.
R: I mean, it's all, the whole thing! It's just-
E: Beyond ridiculous
R: -soo ridiculous, it blows my mind that people could actually threaten the life, or even just the livelihood, of another person over a cracker.
S: Yeah, and the most absurd thing, is that it draws the most ridiculous negative attention to them, and it gives PZ and other critics the opportunity to say 'you're upset over what happens to a cracker, and not over your priests buggering little boys, you know, let's put things in perspective!'
R: Yeah, the same day all of that was blowing up, I read in the newspaper, it was a headline that was literally like 'Pope considering apology' (laughs) 'for Catholic priests'
R: Like, seriously?
E: Whatever happened to the old adage 'turn the other cheek', and all these other-
J: Rebecca, what's the pope doing? Is he sitting there like 'should I apologise? Was it bad enough?'
R: Exactly! He's like 'Well, once we deal with this cracker kerfuffle'
R: 'Maybe then I'll give some thought to that'. Yeah, and one of the funny things that strikes me in the 'turn the other cheek' category, is that a lot of the people emailing PZ were saying things like 'you just say something like that about the Muslims and see what happens to you, and then we'll all be laughing'. And it's basically, you know, 'I'm not going to kill you, but I'll laugh when someone else does the dirty work for me', and it's like, you know, not much better
S: Right, yeah, in fairness, I think this is a rabid minority, it's not your rank and file-
R: Yeah, it definitely is.
S: But, talk about negative press, it's incredible.
J: To add a little detail into the death-threat that PZ received, the email gave him until the first of the month to resign his position at the university, 'or', the email said, 'you have two choices, you can quit your job for the good of the children, or you can get your brains beat in.' That's a Christian.
R: That was just one of them
S: 'For the good of the children'. It's always about the children. Let's go on to the next news item
S: Now you guys know I love the Discovery Institute's blog: Evolution News and Views
J: You should write for them
R: Yeah, we're going to have an intervention one of these days
S: Yeah, I know. But this one was so stupid, I couldn't stay away, couldn't stay away. So, Casey Luskin, who's one of the more mindless bloggers over there, this is the Discovery Institute propaganda blog-
R: It's like being the skinniest kid at fat camp, oh wait, mindless? Oh, nevermind, that's even kinda impressive.
J: So she's the fat kid at fat camp
R: Being the fattest kid at fat camp
S: You guys remember tiktaalik? (see episode 121) Tiktaalik was a fossil that was discovered that is a link between fish and tetrapods, so it's a missing link, it's an actual missing link. Of course, you know, you have a beautiful transitional fossil like this, it's a slam-dunk for evolution, and I think we mentioned before that, not only is this a beautiful transitionary fossil, it was found by paleontologists who went looking for it in a specific strata because they hypothesized that this kind of fossil had to exist at this time, at this time period. It had to exist during a time when fish were evolving into tetrapods, and they found it! Yeah, we talk about the predictive power of evolution, right?-
B: What did he say specifically? What needs to exist in this time frame? What was it that-
S: It was a fish basically, with fins evolving into feet, right?
S: And so they found exactly what they were looking for. The propagandists over at the Discovery institute have to do whatever they can just to throw doubt on to the specimen, right? So they're in a tough position, they have to make arguments that are more ridiculous than they usually have to make, because this is such a nice example of a transitional fossil. So here's Casey quoting Shubin from the article:
The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they share similar positions and articular relations.
S: Now, Casey Luskin says, writes in his blog:
Translation: OK, then exactly which "wrist bones of tetrapods" are Tiktaalik's bones homologous to? Shubin doesn't say. This is a technical scientific paper, so a few corresponding "wrist bone"-names from tetrapods would seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.
S: So, this was Luskin really just flaunting his ignorance for the world to see. Now, I wouldn't expect everyone to know what the word 'eponymous' means, the only reason why I know it, is because I encounter it every now and again in the technical literature, it's not a word I think I've ever used in conversation.
E: It's the title of an REM album
S: Is that right?
R: Oh, right
J. It's also part of the word hippoponymous
S: But eponymous means-
S: - it means 'by the same name', right? So when Schubin is saying that the ulnare is a homologue to eponymous wrist bones of a tetrapod, he means it's homologous to the ulnare of a tetrapod! He's giving the names in a very efficient way, by just saying it's evolutionarily derived from bones that have the same name in the tetrapod wrist, right? So the wrist bones in the fish have the same name as the wrist bones in the tetrapod, and the tetrapod bones actually evolved from the bones of the same name in tiktaalik, in the fish. There you go, Luskin didn't even bother to look the word up.
B: So he's translating a technical sentence, and he messes up on the only word that really wasn’t technical, just a little obscure.
S: Yeah, he blew it on language. he blew it on language, I mean, forget about understanding the actual evolution or scientific arguments. But it just shows you how intellectual sloppy they are. They're not trying to understand what's really going on, they're just trying to cast as much doubt on this, they're just trying to say 'oh look, Schubin is being vague and not describing technically what he's talking about', as if there's some deception going on, when the reality is that Luskin is just a stupid idiot.
E: Luskin's a white hole
S: Seriously, I mean, the guy should be flipping pancakes at IHOP. I tell you, he's writing-
E: I agree
S: -writing for a-
J: Hey, Steve, you know what? Maybe he is
S: Maybe he is
R: He could be! But that takes actual skill
J: 'On my break at lunch time, I'm gonna write my news entry to the Discovery institute. You know what, get back, get some extra freakin' syrup over there, ok table five.'
E: That's very eponymous of him.
E: Oh, what a week! This is a helluva week!
S: Well, let's move on to some actual science news-
J: Thank you
S: To try to recover from the funniness
Zapping Cancer Cells (19:34)
S: So, Bob, tell us about the new laser surgery technique
B: Yeah, this is pretty cool, engineers at the University of Texas at Austin, have created surgical lasers so accurate, that they can destroy single cells, leaving their neighbor cells unaffected. Mechanical engineering assistant professor Adela Ben-Yakar says that with the system they've developed, you can remove a cell with high precision in 3D, without damaging the cells above and below it, and you can see with the same precision, what you're doing to guide your microsurgery. Now, what they used to do this, is- there's two parts that they used, they used a femtosecond laser, and a powerful type of three-dimensional microscopy. Both of them are very-
J: Bob, femtosecond, how small is that?
B: (cheerily) I'm glad you asked that, Jay! A femtosecond is basically a quadrillionth of a second
J: Ok, that doesn't help most of the listeners
R: A quadrillionth?
B: Alright, well I'll try to put it into some perspective, take a billionth of a second, now divide that into a million pieces.
J: Oh my god
S: How far would a light beam go in a femtosecond?
B: Ah-ha, that's a good one, Steve-
E: four foot one
B: -in one second, in a little more than one second, light can travel to the moon. In 50 femtoseconds, it travels about the width of a human hair
B: So, it's super, super, tiny, so you're talking about a laser with these super short pulses. Real tiny!
J: Yeah, but Bob, that- so what if you, like, turn that laser on and put it on somebody? That thing could
B: It would completely take out one of your cells, gone!
J: I'm thinking like a lightsaber, you know?
B: Now the-
S: On the femto scale, it's like a lightsaber
B: Yeah, turn it on for a few quadrillion femtoseconds, and now you're talking
J: What, you think there's like a bacteria that's like (lightsaber noise)
B: One of the reasons, now they've used lasers in surgeries before, but the problem is that the laser gets so hot that there's, you know, damage all over the place. It's on a small scale, but still, you're destroying all these cells that are around the sick cells. Basically, the femtosecond laser, the pulse is so brief, that the transfer of heat is completely minimized. And actually, it's so hot, it gets so much hotter than boiling, that it just turns the cell into like an ionised plasma that just dissipates away. So that's one side of the coin, the other side of this breakthrough is this 3D imaging tool that these people are using, it's called 'two-photon fluorescence microscopy'. Now this is- I went to a bunch of websites trying to get a real good definition of this, and it was actually difficult, some of them are so technical, that it was hard for me to follow. But if I followed it, what I think, is they're using two photons, they shoot two photons into molecules that absorb the photons, and then the way that this energy is released after the molecule get- the electrons in the orbits get excited, and they go back down and release the energy, they can kind of figure out where exactly where these cells, these molecules are, and that way, they've built up this beautiful three-dimensional map of all the cells around them so that there's nothing, there's no extraneous information from these cells that are really far away, kind of confusing the targeting. You know what I mean? So that's pretty much what they're doing. Basically, it's a detailed, three-dimensional map of the cells.
J: So, Bob, how can they get that laser into a particular part of your body, say three or four inches down, or brain cells, or, what do they do?
B: Well, what they're doing is, their ultimate goal is to- well, they think they'll achieve this in two years is they're gonna get this into an endoscope, into one, nicely flexible endoscope that they can use for surgery. Right now, it's a little bit too big, it's about three times too big, but they think they could shrink it enough-
S: Although, it's only too big if- it's not too big to use as an endoscope, meaning you put a little camera where you wanna go, and you have – for the imaging, and the laser is attached to the imaging, so you could basically zap what you see. The problem is that it's not compatible with existing endoscopic equipment.
S: So it's really just an issue of compatibility that they need to- and smaller
B: Yeah, but if you're gonna make a new endoscope, you've got to make it compatible with what's out there, so they're not gonna- it's really not gonna come into its own until it reaches that size. And you know how electronics and miniturization is working, in a few years, they should be able to pull this off, and then you've really got something there. And if you don't know what endoscopy is, it's this new trend in surgery, instead of one big nasty scar, where like they're taking out your kidney or whatever, it's these three little scars. And our father recently had this surgery, and it's amazing. He's got these three little incisions, and recovery is really fast, and scarring, of course, is minimised, 'cause you've got these three little scars instead of one big one-
S: Yeah, they put the instruments through one hole, the camera through another hole, things like that.
B: Right, and there are probably some people thinking 'well, how effective is this going to be, if you're just zapping one cell at a time?'. If you've got a significant amount of surgery ahead of you, you can't just be zapping one cell at a time, but what the idea is, though, they've got imaging software that will allow surgeons to target one cell at a time, using algorithms that could also use the device to detect diseased cells, and destroy them automatically. Now stop thinking about those cosmetic lasers that run amok in Logan's Run, that's just a movie, and that's not gonna happen.
J: But what about the instant healing, Bob? They're going to come out with that next, too.
B: Heh, yeah
S: Gotta get that instant healing going, too. Yeah, but this is, from one point of view, it's just an ultra-precise endoscopic surgical laser, which, in and of itself, is a great advance. But if you get to the point where you combine it with the imaging and computer algorithms, then it could be- you know, look at a tissue, at a microscopic scale, and just zot all the cancer cells, for example, and leave the healthy cells alone, then you're talking.
B: Yeah, especially for a com- like, if you're working in areas like your vocal cords, or brains cells – even more so – where you wanna nail these cancer cells, and you wanna absolutely spare every healthy neuron, then you could see how important this would be.
Questions and Emails: Changing Minds (26:05)
S: So, let's go on to a few emails, the first e-mail comes from Cam Steer in Melbourne, Australia, and he writes:
Hi guys. Love the show.
On the last podcast, #154, Dr Edell brought up the point that many people when asked what evidence would change their mind about a particular subject, are unable to answer, or state that no evidence would change their opinion.
I was thinking about this in relation to my own beliefs, and to my dismay I discovered that I might actually be the same as those people.
I'm an atheist - so I was wondering what kind of evidence would convince me that there was a god of some sort.
My first thought were some proof that evolution couldn't happen by natural means, or that life could never have originated unaided. But truthfully, in that situation I would just say that the science until then was wrong, and wait for the next theory.
Even if God himself (or herself) appeared before me, I would just put it down to some mental illness and seek professional help.
So for fear of becoming as closed-minded as the true-believers, can you think of what kind of evidence would prove to you guys (and should prove to people like me) that evolution didn't happen, or that there is a creator god, or that homeopathy works, etc.
Any advice is appreciated.
Keep up the good work.
S: Well that's an interesting question
B: Yeah, it is. For me, it's like, what would it take for you to not believe in the theory of gravity. Like, it's been established to such a degree, that it's like almost disprove two plus two equals four, it's a fact. So then to come up with another fact that you can encounter, to make- to disprove the first one, it's like, well, how do you do that without-
B: I don't know, you know?
R: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I think it's-
E: Well said, that's what I was going to say.
R: It's easier, I came up with that myself, by the way.
S: Very pithy, very catchy
E: Hah, Carl Sagan did
R: Thank you… yeah, it was Carl Sagan. But, yeah, I think that, you know, and it depends what claim you're talking about.
R: If you're talking about if there's a god, well that's kinda tricky-
B: Yeah, that's a tough one
R: -because there's no solid definition, you know
E: There's no god test, no god measuring stick
R: Right, but if you're talking about homeopathy, oh well that's easy enough, just give me a couple of stringently peer-reviewed, successful trials that show it works. They don't have a single thing to show that it works, so-
E: They can't even tell two glasses of water apart, which one was homeopathic, and which one wasn't. They cannot statistically get past that, let alone whether homeopathy works. They can't even tell which glass is which!
R: The way it works is a study would come out and say 'we found that we could tell the difference, this treatment worked', even if it goes against all logic, I'm cool with it, that's fine.
S: A good study, there are crappy studies that purport to tell- like Rustum Roy's crappy research
S: But it still doesn't stand up to peer review, which is-
R: That's what I was about to say, you know, you look at the study, and if that study is rigorous, then, great, does that mean I now believe all of homeopathy? No. But it does mean that now we have something to work with.
S: It's a step
R: Now we can perfect it, yeah, it's the first step. So yeah, I can totally see that sort of thing happening and convincing me, because even if, right now, we don't see how there's any way in hell anything as ridiculous as homeopathy could possibly work, if somebody could just show that it does work, that's really all I need.
S: You're right, Rebecca, in that it's the question that is key. So, Cam is mixing a few different kinds of questions here, and he actually hits upon why you can't ever have evidence for god, because as usually conceived of it's a being that is outside the realm of the universe, not constrained by the physical laws of the universe, and there's just no way for us to have anything like scientific evidence for or against the existence of such an entity. What I have always said, is if a god-like being appeared before me and said 'Behold, I am the god Jehovah, worship me', how could I know that it wasn't just a really super advanced alien pretending to be a god?
S: I couldn't, I couldn't know that.
B: You couldn't
E: Star Trek episode (inaudible)
S: Yeah, so there are some questions that are not answerable by science, those questions, there is no amount of evidence that could prove scientifically that it's true, because it's not a scientific question, by definition.
B: What about evolution, then?
S: So that- that evolution did not happen. So the simple answer is you would need an amount of evidence that was at least equivalent to the amount of evidence that we have that says evolution did happen, that's all.
R: Which is quite a bit
S: Which is quite a bit, which is mountainous
R: Extraordinary to borrow a term
S: Yeah. Homeopathy, I wanna see not one trial, not two trials, I wanna see the same study show a clear effect, whatever that is, if you can tell the difference between homeopathic and non-homeopathic water, or that there's some specific effect, and have it be replicable by any scientist in the world who follows the protocol, who does it the way they're supposed to do it. That it's absolutely an effect that you can count on, that's reproducible, and that does not go away when a real scientist does it, or somebody who doesn't believe in homeopathy does it.
B: Right, and a mechanism would be nice.
S: Well that would be a starting point. Here's an interesting story, I was lecturing about skepticism to the Warrens, you know Ed and Lorraine Warren used to hold their classes-
B: I remember that
S: -where they would teach ghost hunting. Do you guys remember this?
B: Yeah, I remember
E: Oh yeah
S: And this was where we were in the phase we were pretending to be friendly with them and investigating their methods and everything. And they invited me to give a lecture to their class, and one of the students in the ghost-hunting class asked me what would convince me, what piece of evidence would convince me that ghosts were real? And it was a hard question to answer in front of a hostile audience, but what I was trying to say was that there is no single piece of evidence that can convince you of such a complicated phenomenon. Like there's no single piece of evidence that proves that evolution happened. I said the starting point would be a genuine anomaly, give me something that I can't explain with existing explanatory methods, something that's a true anomaly – that's a starting point, and then we'll go from there and find out something about the nature of that anomaly. And that it may have some properties which people think of as, you know, ghost phenomenon. Something. We have to- I takes a research program to slowly build a story to establish a new phenomenon, not just one piece of evidence.
S: But for things like that, for homeopathy or ghosts or whatever, the proponents are not even getting up to that. They're not even getting up to that first step that you would use to launch into a research program, let alone establishing the reality of any of these things.
E: Plus, what standards are you going after? Like Joe Nickell says, there's no authentic paranormal activity, there's no authentic ghost photograph or ghost evidence, how do you go about measuring these things?
S: Yeah, there's no gold standard
E: It's nearly an impossible task.
S: Well science discovers new things, you have to establish what the gold standard is, but you have to do it very very carefully and meticulously by ruling everything else out and, you know, you have to triangulate multiple different independent lines of evidence to say 'yeah, this is what's going on'. But again, they're so far away from that, they're just, you know, we always throw out the term 'well that's ghost cold', that's their science, 'you see that cold? It's ghost cold'. That's what they're doing, jumping from an alleged anomaly to a conclusion, and missing the 20 steps in between that science- where the science is.
J: Yeah, and most of the time, Steve, they're not even anomalies, you know? They're reflected lights on glass-
S: A draft!
J: There's, you know, a draft somewhere, we're not talking about anomalies, this is just things that they're superimplosing these ideas on top of everyday events.
S: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, this was a- give me- let's start with a real anomaly, and then we'll go from there.
J: So I was thinking about this person's email, I came to some of the same conclusions that you guys did, and I also thought of this, things like gravity and evolution, exactly what you said, Steve, like there would have to be that much evidence undoing all of the evidence that we have. And then I thought, it would be more likely for me to actually believe in god, than it would to disbelieve, or to stop believing in gravity, or a concept like evolution.
S: Yeah, I mean there are some scientific truths that will likely never be over-turned, like, you know, DNA is the molecule that carries genetic inheritance information from one generation to the next. That's never going to be over-turned.
B: That's a good example, and that's how I see evolution, that something, that mechanisms will change, but the big 'e' of evolution can never be undone. It would take- I was thinking, what would it actually take to do that-
S: Well how about this, it's possible, I mean, it's possible. Let's say we find horse fossils in Cambrian strata. So, 500 million years ago, when there was nothing but little tiny, multicellular animals around-
S: -and you see in that, clearly embedded naturally in that strata, and not just one example that could be some fluke mixing of layers or something, but we find these all the time, of non-evolutionary fossil sequence, something that's just impossible, then we would have to say 'alright, there's something else going on here, either, you know, there was alien interference in the course of evolution on the planet, or something else going on that we're not accounting for'. But we cannot account for that within standard evolutionary theory. It's possible, we never have found any of those anomalies or anything that would falsify the straight-forward evolutionary story, but we could. It's not impossible, if evolution were not true, or if there were something else going on too.
B: I know what it would take. You wake up and your entire life has been this virtual reality game and you actually live in a reality where there is no fossil evidence, and no evidence, just evidence that we appeared. Like 'ok-'
E: We are in Shirley MacLaine territory now
B: -and then I would buy that
J: Yeah, but you would question that new reality
B: Yeah, I would
S: That's the problem, you wake up in the matrix, now you will never know what is real, you can never know what's real
E: Yeah remember when Victoria Principal opened the door and there was Bobby, Dallas… thing… it was all a dream
B: It would take something on that scale, on that level to make me say 'yup, it's not real, it's probably not real'
S: All I would conclude from that, Bob, is 'now I have no idea what's real', because if what we're experiencing right now isn't reality, and suddenly I find myself waking up into some other reality that's just as real as I'm experiencing now? The only thing you could really conclude from that is you don't know, you can't conclude what's real.
J: Guys, what about believing in god, or believing in the supernatural. What would it take, paint that scenario, or start talking about that.
S: Well, I mean, yeah, it would be very tempting to leap to a supernatural conclusion if something very compelling happened, but you still have to keep your wits about you and realise that-
S: -there could still be something very fantastical going on that still isn't supernatural, you know, again you could generate an infinite number of hypotheses, again, it could be an alien with some kind of mind control device playing- having fun with you, or having some kind of fun with you. Maybe somebody invented a true holographic device and is doing pranks with it. I mean, as bizarre as any of those things sound-
B: You have to rule them out
S: You still have to rule them out before you can say 'alright, this is supernatural or paranormal'
J: Would it take bringing someone back from beyond-
B: The beyond?
S: Yeah, oh like if Perry walking through the door right now? That would be extremely compelling, because I saw him dead, you know, so that-
E: Yeah, that would
R: Well, really the first thing you do would be to get yourself to the hospital to get your head examined.
J: Well not if you're not alone, I'm just thinking, like under the circumstance where you're among people you trust and you experience the same thing.
R: Then I would check the carbon monoxide filter
S: Yeah, first you have to confirm that it's not, like Cam said, not some sort of mental illness, you'd have to confirm that this is real, that this is confirmable. Then, but even still I would try not to prematurely narrow the possible things that could be going on by concluding this is something paranormal. For example, maybe somebody cloned him from some cells of his, whatever, or somebody from the future, some alien, some amazing technology that somebody got access to somehow-
J: So what you're saying is anything grounded in the physical world, in physical reality, is more likely than jumping to a supernatural conclusion.
S: Always, always.
B: Right, you owe it to yourself to rule that stuff out first
S: At least historically, those explanations are much more fruitful than the paranormal ones, so I would exhaustively pursue that before ever settling. 'Cause again, I think settling on the paranormal explanation is just saying 'I give up'. It's ending the process of investigation, 'cause you're saying it's something that is not scientifically knowable, it's supernatural, it's beyond laws that are amenable to science. I always see that as giving up, and I wouldn't want to give up, I would want to know exactly what was going on, and then that would mean considering any possible physical explanation for what you were experiencing.
B: Think how that would consume us though, wow.
J: I think we'd miss a few podcasts, right?
S: And let's go on to our interview
Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (39:35)
(jingle) S: We are sitting now with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.
N: My first time on the program, thanks for having me.
S: I've been dying to have you on our show for a long time, actually, and I knew that... then you… I saw you-
N: So why'd it take so long?
S: Well, I saw you were the keynote speaker here-
R: Yeah, you're a busy man!
S: I knew this would be the golden opportunity
N: I feel unloved
R: How could you feel unloved when you are the sexiest astrophysicist in the world?
N: Well, that was seven years ago.
R: Oh, well, I think-
S: Have you been dethroned? Or are-
N: Actually, they haven't repeated the category, so
S: There you go, you're the reigning champ
J: Yeah, you closed it out
R: We had Carolyn Porco on last year, I think, she's a hot little number
N: A colleague of mine, yeah
R: But, the vest you're wearing, I say, has to put you ( vest )
N: It's a little loud, this is my cosmic vest, with bright sun and moon bursts on it. But I've grown accustomed to wearing it, and people I think, I think, have grown accustomed to seeing it (laughs) to the point where they even expect it, so I'm happy to wear it. Although, since it's thick cloth, and we are in Las Vegas, where it's 105 degrees outside, it's not really the right thing.
S: That's right.
N: We should all have these conferences in bathing suits or something
J: Next year, in the pool
N: Yeah, pool-side lecture, yeah
S: So, just for our listeners, Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium-
N: But before I'm that, I'm actually, just simply an astrophysicist
S: Astrophysicist, I was gonna put that in there. Author of several books, which, why don't you go ahead and plug your books right now? Tell us about the books you've written on astrophysics.
N: Well my most recent one, the one that's sort of most available, and most widely read, actually, is "Death by Black Hole", now available in paperback. And that one is ten years collected of my most requested, and my personal favorite essays that I've written for Natural History Magazine. And it's surprising that they could come together as a book, because normally it would be piece-meal, but this one wasn’t. There were enough essays that became chapters that had crossed themes and resonance with other parts, and it became a whole in ways that I didn't even anticipate-
N: -beginning it. And the title chapter is a rather graphic description of what would happen to you as you descended into a black hole.
B: So the word spaghettification" must be in there somewhere
N: (excitedly) You know!
B: I knew it, I just wanted to say that word
N: You can't fall into a black hole and not be spaghettified!
R: Can we get the quick overview?
N: The quickie, the black hole quickie is, as you stand here on Earth, you may know that the force law for gravity will set- will tell you that Earth's force of gravity at your feet is slightly greater than at your head, because your feet are closer to Earth's center. But that difference is not very much, because you're short compared with the radius of the Earth, but a black hole is a very small object, many of the ones we're talking about here are small. So that as you descend, there comes a point where your height is significant, compared with the size of the black hole, or the size of the event horizon of the black hole. And what that means is, the gravity at your feet becomes incessantly greater than the gravity at your head. These are what's called the tidal forces, and you begin to stretch, initially it might even feel good, we all stretch in the morning, right? But it doesn't stop, and you reach a point where the tidal forces exceed the molecular forces that bind your flesh, and you basically snap into two pieces. And then those two pieces, as they descend, each feel their own growing tidal force, and they snap in two. So you go from one to two, to four, to eight, to sixteen, until you're a stream of atoms descending down this abyss. And that's not even the worst of it, the fabric of space and time funnel down to a point so that as you descend, you're actually getting extruded through an ever-narrowing track through space and time, like toothpaste coming out of a tube, and so that process has been knighted-
N: -being spaghettified
J: How long would it take? Do we have any idea if somebody did go in, like, is it a second that would happen in?
N: Well, it would take…
J: It depends on the size of the black hole, probably
N: Yeah, it depends on the size of the black hole, it would take minutes, not seconds-
R: Well, doesn't time-
N: You're falling great distances.
R: Doesn't time slow down as you approach the center?
N: For other people watching you, but for you, you just fall straight in
R: Ok, yeah
J: So, you're only going to survive maybe 15, 20 seconds
N: Well I kept trying to invent some kind of rotisserie-
N: -right? Because if you're rotating fast, you're not gonna stretch in one way that sustains. But I'm working on that.
R: Well, let us know
E: One thing at a time
N: Well, the point of the book is more than just- by the way, that chapter comes from a chapter- from a section called 'when the universe turns bad: all the ways the cosmos wants to kill us'. But what the book is really about is a celebration of science, and how to ask questions about the universe, and how we've come to know what we know about the universe. And it's gotten great feedback on it, which pleases me greatly. 'Cause when I wear my 'scientist educator' hat, as opposed to 'pure scientist' hat, I value those comments from people, because it means that I'm doing the right thing, or at least what it is they want or expect.
R: I think that's a- your role seems to be so important, I've seen you on the Daily Show, and you're- you know, you can transition from that to a more serious environment, and you do it so smoothly-
N: It's hard, but thanks for noticing that it's smooth, because it was hard to make it smooth, that was effort. To go from Jon Stewart to Colbert, to NBC news is three completely different encounters with somebody who's asking you questions, so I have to come, sort of pre-loaded. And I think it matters, if you do a little homework first, you look at previous episodes, look at pace of the exchange of comments and make a judgment as to what you can expect for yourself, given the content you're carrying to the table. I don't think enough people do that, certainly not enough of my colleagues do it, and they might be taken aback or surprised by some line of questioning, when they could've just done a little bit of homework. So I encourage my colleagues to do a little bit of that research before they enter-
S: How much were you influenced by Carl Sagan in that respect?
N: I was already shaped knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up. At the time I met Carl Sagan when I was in high school. But my application to college at Cornell, little did I know, after I'd been accepted, it was forwarded to his office, and he wrote me a personal letter saying-
N: I know, is this Carl Sagan was on Johnny Carson and, it can't be, you know, is this a forgery?
E: You still have that letter, though?
N: Of course I still have that letter. And he said 'I understand you've been accepted to Cornell, if you find it in your schedule to visit, let me know in advance, and I'd be happy to meet you and show you around'-
J: So you were there the next day, right?
N: Maybe three weeks later, I made the time, went up there, and sure enough, he met me outside the building,
N: brought me in and brought me to his office and, I'll never forget, he reached behind and pulled out one of his books, and signed it and handed it to me. And I was like 'that is so cool! He's got one of his books in arms' reach behind his desk!' And on my way home, at the end of the day it started to snow, he drove me to the bus station-
E: Oh, wow
N: He said 'if the bus can't make it through, here's my home phone, call me, spend the night 'til the weather clears'. And I thought to myself 'I'm nobody, what's he doing this for me for?'
N: And to this day- I don't know if the audience- I just banged the table.
N: To this day, I treat students the way he treated me. Because he had no prior reason to treat me as anything, but I, somehow I mattered to him, and I try to make sure that students matter to me because of that encounter, in that way, he was influential beyond measure.
B: So you have books behind your desk? And you hand 'em out?
N: Now they come in and I pull out the books!
N: Exactly! And I think of that moment
S: We joked at the beginning about you being voted the sexiest astrophysicist, but after just listening to your keynote speech at TAM, which was awesome by the way, to me was entertaining as, like a stand-up comic, but a scientist who's also a stand-up comic, or just a polished entertainer-
B: Steve said to me, he said to me "I'm glad I'm not following him today"
S: I got a day, people will forget
N: Actually, although, I'd like to distinguish myself from a stand-up comic in the following way-
N: I will not hesitate at finding humor in the universe, but I don't go out of my way to tell a joke.
N: I didn't tell any jokes today, right? 'did you hear the one about-', no! No, it was all flowed out of the content
N: And I think there's a lot of natural humor out there that gets overlooked, because people somehow devalue it, but it makes you smile, it makes you remember.
S: What struck me was, this is a guy who knows how to make science sexy, and how important that is in our culture. How conscious is that? How- did you set up and say 'I'm gonna make science sexy for the public'?
N: No, I just- I am bringing science to the public the way I bring science to myself. That's all I'm doing, and it's what I saw in science that seduced me, and I'm gonna- and that's what I'm doing with the public, and if it seduces them? Then that's great, but it's not a separate recipe.
N: -that I'm bringing to the public that didn't come to me.
S: You're just doin' what comes natural.
N: What feels right, I mean, I pay attention to whether people are paying attention to what I say. Eyebrows go up, did their pupils dilate, did they smile, did they chuckle? And so I will select content that best serves that path of interest. And fortunately, I can do that and still be on the frontier of science, I'm not pulling things out of some box just to make you smile, we can talk about the search for life and the big bang, and black holes and still smile and enjoy it, and these are frontiers. So there's no lost tracking there.
J: What are you most excited about in science today?
N: I love the search for life, it's great, it's not even my background, I have no background in biology other from what I osmotically gather from my colleagues in astrobiology. But I think the search for life on Mars, on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons-
N: -with a liquid ocean kept liquid beneath an ice-sheet, liquid for billions of years, you know, every place there's liquid water on Earth, there's life of some kind, bacterial or otherwise. So the search for life, I'd like to think we find life in our lifetime.
N: And whether we find other intelligent life is another criterion. But any life at all would excite biology and transform biology, actually.
E: I love the ice on Mars that they just-
N: Exactly! Exactly
E: -came out with
N: That evaporated away on the Phoenix mission. But also, the fact that we don't know what 96% of the universe is made of-
N: The dark matter, dark energy problem. That's a 'huge frontier, and it's fun to celebrate our ignorance, because that's why we become scientists, to greet the ignorance at its doorstep.
B: What amazed me with that discovery, was that in a very brief time, everything we knew, we thought we knew about the universe shrunk to 5% in a couple of hours. Like 'oh my god, is 95%-'
N: And of course that's happened half a dozen times before
N: You'd think we'd get used to it by now
N: 'Oh, just another time where reality gets messed over', you know?
B: You think we're past that point, but we're not.
N: Right, we're not in the middle of everything, we're not even made of the most common stuff, you know.
B: That's right.
R: To get back really quickly to your talk, what I found really cool about it was that I've known you as someone who promotes the beauty of science in a really great way. And what surprised me today, is to see you come out, like full force skeptic-
R: It was like a roller-coaster through every pseudoscience, you just ripped it apart.
N: Well, yeah, in the way that only a few sentences could be able. But yeah, in this audience, I know it's a good audience, and a skeptical audience, and very resonant with what I do. So I had to make sure it was at least- had hooks and links in ways that would matter. So I'd be curious to see what people who evaluate the conference at the end to see what people actually write about it. But I was sharing with the audience my life experience of being a skeptic, and that was all it was.
B: On that note, something I have to mention. You mentioned one thing, during your jury duty, that floored me because- it's a very funny story. You mentioned that during the 'voir dire' process when the Q&A when you're being questioned by the various attorneys to see if you're suitable, you mention that you were- as an astrophysicist you would evaluate evidence and you also mentioned evaluating eye-witness testimony and how bad it is.
N: Assessing the unreliability of eyewitness testimony
B: Right. I've got a story that is so parallel to that, I couldn't believe. I was being 'voir dired', and they went through the preliminaries and they said 'Bob, what do you do in your spare time?', like 'well, I'm a co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society'
B: 'and what do you do for the society?','well, I'm actually writing an article for the newsletter on the fallibility of human memory'. They said 'thank you very much', I was on the street in two minutes. Gone!
B: Just like you, they didn't want anybody like that
S: So, let me ask you, 'cause I have some similar questions. Is this your first talk at a, quote-unquote, "skeptical meeting"?
N: Yes. Completely. First talk. Ever
S: Is this your first sort of encounter with the label of skepticism? And had you thought about it before?
N: No, I'm a big supporter of the skeptics movement, I've been reading the Skeptical Inquirer since 1980
R: God, I didn't think I could love you more!
N: I was so jazzed by it once I saw it, I went back and got all the back-issues to 1974, or whenever it began.
B: The Zetetik.
N: The Zetetik, Right. I don't even know what that word means, but it was so cool. And so, you know, and you read these, and what's amazing is how inventive pseudoscience people can be
N: What's next? Oh, they're eviscerating cows, ok, and the aliens are- and so it keeps me current, as it would keep all of us current, but I'm a huge supporter of that movement, and my personal goal is to get people thinking straight in the first place. So you don't have to sort of undo it later on.
E: Is there one pseudoscience that drives you crazy more than others?
N: No, they're all equally bad
(general sounds of agreement and laughter)
N: All of them, I don't play favorites, they're all-
R: Yeah, that surprised me too, I thought that you might focus more on the
R: Yeah, the astrology, the moon hoaxes, but, yeah, you put up the Swami thing ( excerpt of Neil's TAM talk)
N: No! Because they all are evidence of a faulty wiring in the brain, it's the wiring that has to be fixed. You can go and try and put band-aids on each one of these, but in the end, is some- how do you think? And then you fix that, and I think all this will just-
B: So you don't just treat the symptom, you treat the
B&N: underlying cause
N: That's right.
S: Yeah, my experience is that scientists, clinical scientists and a skeptic is that you understand the science better when you understand all the ways in which it can go wrong.
N: Yes! That's another point! It's an undervalued aspect of this enterprise, so I do engage people when they write to me, if I trigger their inquiry. If they just come out of the blue, I just don't have time. But if I wrote something, or appeared on TV and stimulated their interest, I will reply, and I do engage them on their issues of religion and god and UFOs, and all this, but I do that sort of private, it's a one-on-one, and I get to see how they are thinking, and it is extremely valuable, just like you said, very useful when you're conducting the next argument that you do. So, in fact, right now, I am gathering together my notes, my archives if you will, for a book that's on the very back burner, called 'letters from an astrophysicist', and this is my correspondence with people who come to me, puzzled about something they either believe they understand, or just simply don't understand.
S: Yeah, I agree, and other- I can't remember who it was now, but someone else observed to me that a great way to teach science, is to confront people's misconceptions about science.
N: Mm-hmm. And that's a way, I don't necessarily think it's the best way, but it's a way. You don't have to confront it, you should at least know that it exists so that you're not blind-sided by a student's reaction to what you say. You should be fully informed about all the tangled mental pathways that exist in your audience. But I don't necessarily espouse beginning your science class by bringing up hoaxes and things. I don't necessarily agree with that.
S: No, I agree, you have to lay the groundwork
N: Yeah, 'cause it's like, the words come out of your mouth, and then who knows what they remember 10 years later except that you taught them about astrology in your astronomy class. You know? So I don't- I try to not give that much cre- again, I'm working on how the brain is wired as the fundamental.
S: Absolutely, and I also find that scientists who engage to some degree in the act of skepticism, even if it's just within their field, are better scientists. It's almost like if you look at a pathological condition that's really extreme, you learn about more subtle expressions of it.
N: The pathological is… odd.
S: (agreeing) mm-hmm.
N: Ok, I just wanna keep the one-syllable versions of words available
R: For an astrophysicist (inaudible)
N: Yeah, we keep it to one syllable
R: Big bang
N: To remind you of that. So, yeah, I agree. Yeah
S: Yeah, so bad disease, studied really bad stuff
S: And then you can recognize the more subtle versions of it. So I think even mainstream scientists sometimes have little subtle pseudoscience-
N: And I get some of my skepticism from, I read old textbook as how- and I see and probe how people thought about something that we now take for granted. I see how they worked through it, and I, with great value to my modern thinking.
S: Your intention is to stay the director at the Hayden planetarium? Is that how you see your career going forward indefinitely?
N: Yeah, as long as I am valuable to the institution, otherwise I'll just be a scientist somewhere, that's all, and just recede back.
S: And how has that been a platform for you? How does that help you do what you want to do?
N: It started out as a platform, because it's a visible institution, but I think what happened was the news broadcasters kept coming back, 'cause I was working on my sound-bites that I was handing them and they liked them, so they just kept coming back, whether or not I was director. To the point where there have been a couple of interviews where they forgot to mention that I'm director, and the folks back at the museum would rather the full museum gets the credit, but there's been some transitioning of me being noticed for holding the title as director, and me being noticed because I'm serving their- feeding their appetite for the cosmos, with or without the pedigree of a title. And in the end, title shouldn't matter, what should matter is the integrity and the strength of your argument.
S: Right, and obviously you're becoming your own brand, I mean
N: Well I'm trying not to lead off, like I said, 'believe me 'cause I have this degree and I'm a PhD and all the rest of that, if you have to lead your argument that way, you don't have an argument.
S: Not as an argument from authority, just that 'this is a cool guy who knows how to talk about science in an interesting and fun way' and-
N: I'd like to feel that by the time I'm done, you feel empowered with the information I gave you. So that you're not going to say 'this is true because Tyson said it', you're gonna say 'this is true because I now understand it, and now I can present that argument' without reference back to me. If you have to reference back to me, I didn't do my job.
S: Right, exactly, treat people how to think, not what to think
S: Well, Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, it's been a real pleasure and an honor sitting here and talking with you, I wish we had an hour more, maybe we'll rub you in in the future for a follow-up.
N: Where do you guys record, or are you on the move all the time?
R: We're on the internets
S: Yeah, we record over Skype, over the internet
N: Oh yeah, Ok
S: We could do that any time you want
J: We're on the east coast
E: We're in Connecticut, so
E: You've heard of that
R: Well, Boston
N: Well I'd like to do one last thing, right now, in press, is my next book, called "The Pluto Files"
B: "The Pluto Files"? Sounds interesting
N: Yeah, this is like odes, emails and epitaphs in the name of a fallen planet
E,B&R: Oh, wow
J: Oh, that's a good idea!
N: So I have, like, my hate-mail from third-graders
R: I thought maybe it would just be what you said at your talk: "Pluto, get over it"
N: It would be a short book, but this is actually not me hitting you over the head, it's a display of society's reaction to this demotion.
R: That's interesting, yeah
N: From the point of view of children and colleagues, and the press, and humorists. And so it's a celebration of a reaction. So that comes out in January.
R: That's great
S: Thanks again
N: Thanks for having me.
Science or Fiction (59:54)
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine, and one fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake, and you all at home can play along. Alright, here we go. Item number one: 'Researchers have discovered a genetic variation that makes people of African descent more susceptible to HIV infection'. Item number two: 'Using a new technique to measure the mass of black holes, astronomers have found that the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy is more than 1000 times more massive than previously estimated'. And item number three: 'In a newly published study medical scientists predict that global warming will lead to more kidney stones'. Evan, please go first.
E: 'have discovered a genetic variation that makes people of African descent more susceptible to HIV infection'. That's kinda scary. The '1000 times more massive than previously estimated' for the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, that seems almost too plausible to be correct, so I think there's a curve-ball there. 'In a newly published study medical scientists predict that global warming will lead to more kidney stones'. The new technique to measure the mass of black holes, well, I think that that one's gonna be fiction, Steve, and I'll venture a guess. There's something about the technique that is not quite right, I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think that's the key to that one. So I'll say that one is fiction. So there you go, 'Milky Way Galaxy more than 1000 times more massive than previously estimated', I'll say that's fiction.
S: Ok, Rebecca
R: Let's see, okay. I, you know, I think I'm gonna agree with him, because I don't think you would make up the one about there being a genetic variation that makes people of African descent more susceptible to HIV. I can certainly see that as being plausible, and ' global warming will lead to more kidney stones' is one of those things that sounds crazy at first, but when you consider it, what we're talking about is a massive weather change, and when the weather changes, the things we consume change. And it's the things that we consume that cause kidney stones, so yeah, that seems true to me. However, measuring the mass of black holes, more than 1000 times more massive? That's pretty massive, I'm gonna say that is not true, you made that up.
S: Ok, Bob.
B: Let's see, the 'genetic variation that makes people of African descent more susceptible to HIV', I'm not buying that, I think we're meant to assume that since the infection rate is just so huge in Africa that we might wanna attribute it to something like that. But I think it's more of a cultural, political reasons than some sort of genetic difference. The third one, global warming and kidney stones, I could see some sort of weird, like Rebecca said, some weird relationship between the weather and food and then how many kidney stones people might have on average. So, I'll say that that is science. The second one, I can see that we possibly came up with an alternative way to measure the mass of black holes, but that we were off by three orders of magnitude? I'm not buying that. They might have refined it a bit, but I don't think that we were off by that much, so I'm saying that the black hole one is fiction.
S: Alrighty, Jay
J: Out of the three of them, the one that I have the most questions about is the black hole one, like, what? You say a black hole is '1000 times more massive than previously estimated', and one of my first questions is, how much bigger would the diameter of the black hole be if it's 1000 times bigger?
S: I didn't say bigger, I said more massive, that's a very specific term.
J: Oooh, that's interesting, Ok. That does change that to me a little bit. The one about the kidney stones? Yeah, I agree with Rebecca, that just- or Bob, rather, I think that one is just kinda mundane, and there could be an explanation for it and I didn't read about it, so I don't know. And, the researchers discovering the 'genetic variation that makes people of African descent more susceptible to HIV infection', that's a tricky one too. I haven't heard anything about that. I don't know, there's something about the black hole one that seems off, so I'm gonna take that as the fake.
S: So you all agree that the black hole one is the fake.
E: (agreeing) mm-hmm
R: You know, I just wish you'd stop using such a racist term, Steve.
E: Oh yeah, there's kind of a theme this week
R: I believe you mean African-American hole
J: You should say 'the non-light-emitting area of outer space'
S: Let's take these in order, number one: 'Researchers have discovered a genetic variation that makes people of African descent more susceptible to HIV infection', that is science. And yeah, there are lots of variability, there is lots of variability in the ability for HIV to infect various people based upon genetic variation. There are some people that are inherently extremely resistant to infection, or, once infected, they become carriers, but never really develop AIDS, and we don't know why. So, it's not that surprising at all that there would be genetic populations that are more or less susceptible to infection. But, Bob, you were right, i think that obviously in Africa there;s an AIDS epidemic happening there, an HIV epidemic, and that's largely caused by political and sociological reasons, not this. This is just an extra little whammy thrown in there. Interestingly, the same mutation that confers increased susceptibility to infection, also allows those infected to survive on average two years longer, so they get infected easier, but they survive a little longer. Which means they're around longer to pass on the virus, too.
B: Right, did you hear about the supposed Achilles' heel that they found?
B: Very interesting. Apparently there's one site on the antigen that doesn't change, that can't mutate, because that's the site it uses to bind to your cells, and if it mutated that, it wouldn't be able to bind to the cell. Everything else can mutate, but not that little bit, and they think that if they target that little bit they can really fry it, so-
S: Yeah, part of the big problem with HIV, is it mutates within a host, so it actually becomes harder and harder to treat as the infection goes on. There are so-called hyper-variable regions that can change very rapidly, but there's the stable regions that don't change because they're necessary for function, like binding to the T-cells. So then that's an obvious target for therapies. So that one is science, you guys all got that one correct. This is research published in Cell Host and Microbe Co-authored by Robin Weiss from UCL infection and immunity. Let's- we'll take these in order, then next one is-
J: The black hole
S: 'Using a new technique to measure the mass of black holes, astronomers have found that the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy is more than 1000 times more massive than previously estimated'. You all thought this was fiction, and this was fiction. That's two weeks in a row you guys have swept me.
E: Ran the table!
S: But this was based on a real story, astronomers have developed a new technique to measure the mass of black holes. Did any of you see this news item?
S: This was one I hoped you'd see the headline. If you didn't read past the headline, you coulda gotten suckered into this one.
R: Luckily for you, we're completely ignorant.
E: It's a personal choice.
S: Astronomers have developed a technique using the Chandra X-ray Observatory
E: Love it
S: Yup, what they do is measure the peak in temperature of a hot gas in the center of the galaxy, and they use that as a way of estimating the mass of a super-massive black hole. They didn't do it in our own galaxy, they did it in NGC4649, and it confirmed that the technique is valid, because it came up with the same answer as the traditional technique that had previously been used. So it didn't come up with a new number for this massive black hole, it came up with basically the same number as previous techniques. So that shows that this new method for weighing black holes is probably valid.
J: Maybe you should have said 100 times more massive-
S: I- you know, I always have to debate- It's gotta be enough, you know, to give you a chance of seeing that that's implausible, but not ridiculous
S: So I almost did go with 100, then I said, nah, maybe that's not quite enough, just 100 times, maybe that's still a little bit- I wanted to make it solidly wrong.
B: That's what really did it for me, I think, 1000, like, even 100 would've done it, too but-
S: It's a hard judgment call.
S: But I'd rather make it too easy than seem unfair. All this means that: 'In a newly published study medical scientists predict that global warming will lead to more kidney stones' is science. That's one of those things, as you guys say, at first blush you're like 'huh? Global warming's being blamed for everything, now we're going to have more kidney stones due to global warming?' But what they're extrapolating from, you were kinda right, although it's not food, it's simply temperature. Increased temperature leads to more dehydration, and dehydration leads to kidney stones. So there is actually a so-called 'kidney stone belt' (laughs) you ever heard of the bible belt?
J: Somebody wears one those?
S: A 'kidney stone belt 'which is a temperature zone where there's higher risk for dehydration, and there's people- living in those latitudes, you have a lot more kidney stones, and that will extend farther north as temperatures rise, and they estimate that within the next 28 years or so we may actually have millions of cases more kidney stones, because the kidney stone belt is expanding north. This is a study published by urologists at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
J: So, Steve, following that logic, if people that are from the Mediterranean would have a higher chance of getting kidney stones.
S: Yeah, that's true, that's the whole point of what the 'kideny stone belt' is, that people in the south-east do have more kidney stones, because they're at more risk for dehydration. So, kidney stones are essentially different minerals, like calcium, precipitating out in the urine in the kidneys, and you can prevent that from happening by keeping your kidneys flushed, keeping dilute urine flowing through the kidneys, so just by keeping well hydrated. I have a colleague in fact, who has a genetic mutation where he's just very at-risk for developing kidney stones, and he's had it several times, and he's gotta just constantly drink and keep his pee very dilute in order to prevent them from forming.
J: Does he have a kidney stone belt?
S: The research predicts that by 2050, higher temperatures will cause initial 1.6-2.2 million kidney stone cases in the United States.
J: Well, we'll have nanotechnology by then, so no worries
S: (laughs) Yeah, right. But the thing that's interesting is that I was also thinking when I was reading this was aren't there some diseases that you're at higher risk of because of the cold? That there would be less of due to global warming? Just talking about climate change, if the climate changes, you're going to get more of some things, and less of some other things. I'm not saying, I'm not taking the position that there's no problems with global warming, or with climate change. I'm just saying, if you're looking at one disease where high temperature is a risk factor, yes, any disease where temperature is a risk factor is gonna get worse as temperatures go up, but there are diseases where low temperatures are risk factors.
J: Yeah, like one of them was called the 'cockus shrinkus'
S: That's true
J: That's widespread, especially in Canada. Especially around where Mike Lacelle lives
S: Shrinkage? For short? Well Jay,
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:12:26)
E: Bring us home, Jay
S: Please tell us, bring us home with a quote, babe
J: Is it quote time already?
S: Ah, the time passes so quickly.
J: Well, I found a Japanese proverb.
J: So this means that the author is unknown on this one. And I like it, it's a good little quote, and the thing I like about it is that this quote shows you that even though time passes, people don't change. The quote is:
If you believe everything you read, you better not read.
J: JAPANESE PROVERB!
J: Steve, I would like to invite our listeners to please vote for us on Digg, we're going up, and it is something that's important to me, and probably nobody else, but just do it.
S: No, it's very important, we do appreciate it when our listeners help spread the word by giving us kind reviews on iTunes and voting for us on Digg and Technorati, and all those other aggregators and podcast voting things. And, the youTube project is going very well, we have our third video up, this one was edited by Mike Lacelle, it's the cell-phone and brain cancer bit, that's the one that includes the whole utility belt vs. fanny-pack debate.
R: Oh, dear god
S: Mike did a very funny job, we're getting some good feedback initially on that. And somebody pointed out that obviously, we're up to 2,500 or so views, so we're getting there, but you can also, we have a channel, and you can subscribe to our channel, we already have 471 subscribers, and I really recommend that you do that, because we're actually ranked pretty high in terms of channel subscribers, so that's a way of getting us fairly prominent on youTube, even though the absolute number of views are still low-ish-
J: You can get to that link on our home page, or you can also get a link to the 5X5 podcast on our homepage. I found it very difficult to search for our channel, maybe I just don't know youTube as well as I thought I did, but when I tried to search for our channel on there, I couldn't find it. So, I dunno, maybe we gotta work on our tags for that.
J: Or you could just type that in
R: It doesn't take a genius. Hey, speaking of none of that, I wanted to just say that some of our listeners may have noticed that we occasionally have a secret word on the podcast? One listener guessed what it was last week, and so I said that the prize would be saying his name on the air. So, congratulations, 'FlyLikeDaedalus', you got it, last week's secret word was 'udder'
R: 'udder', like a cow udder.
S: And we're not telling you what this week's was.
R: No, that would ruin the fun.
E: I think it was black hole.
R: But if you wanna guess, you can go on the SGU forums, which are linked from the Skeptics' Guide homepage, you can go in the forums, and every episode gets its own little forum topic, and you can take your guess there.
J: I'd also like to, real quick, just give a general thank you to all the people who are donating time to helping us do the various projects we're working on. The list is growing of people that write in and say they're willing to help, and we're using them, and it's great
S: It is great
J: We're getting a lot more done
S: There's so many more projects could be working on. You know, Jay and I have been working to make sure we are keeping our volunteers busy and getting the most out of people who are kindly donating their talents, their skills and their time to the skeptical community, which was- that was always a goal when we first started the NESS, it's actually in our mission statement that we want to be a venue for skeptics to contribute to the skeptical movement, and actually with the SGU, that part of our mission statement is coming to fruition, more than it ever has before, so if you feel like you want to contribute to this project, let us know; we will find a way to use you.
J: One more quick thing about the website, I added an anti-spam measure on the 'contact us' page called Captcha, where you have to type in the letters that you see in an image. And I did notice that we didn't get emails for a little while, and I tried to make the page a little easier to use or whatever. But if you are having problems sending us an email, or you sent one recently and you don't think we've received it, you can try re-sending it, or maybe leave a message on the message board to let us know. Please.
S: Yeah, we had to do that, because we were literally getting hundreds of spam emails a day, we had to do it. Well thanks everyone for joining me again
R: Thank you Steve
E: This was an interesting week.
R: This was a joy
S: Yeah, a lot of fun this week, and a little bit of a different episode this week, I think it's fun
R: Pure gold, pure gold
S: Pure gold
J: Oh my god
R: I'm having a party
R: Boston Area Skeptics on Monday July 28th is the next Boston skeptics in the pub, and it's gonna be a really special one, it's gonna be a lot of fun. We're going to be playing skeptics' trivia, and you don't have to be a skeptic, you can bring along your friends who aren't that into the skeptic thing, it's cool, there'll be a lot of different questions for different skill levels, and there will be prizes and much fun shall be had. Info, as always, at BostonSkeptics.com
J: Thank you
S: Alright, thanks again everyone. And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.
Today I Learned ...
- On July 16th the 1994, Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 collided with Jupiter
- Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin, have created surgical lasers so accurate, that they can destroy single cells, leaving neighboring cells unaffected (MIT Technology Review: Zapping Individual Cancer Cells)
- A femtosecond is a quadrillionth of a second. In a little more than one second, light can travel to the moon. In 50 femtoseconds, it travels about the width of a human hair
- Researchers have discovered a genetic variation that makes people of African descent more susceptible to HIV infection. The same mutation that confers increased susceptibility to infection, also allows those infected to survive on average two years longer
- There are some people who are inherently extremely resistant to infection, or, once infected, they become carriers, but never really develop AIDS. At the time the podcast aired, there was no reason known for this.
- Medical scientists predict that global warming will lead to more kidney stones
- Pharyngula Pharyngula on scienceblogs.com
Pharyngula on freethoughtblogs.com
- View Natural History articles by Neil deGrasse Tyson at haydenplanetarium.org
- Neil deGrasse Tyson's talk at TAM: Jury duty at 38 minutes – YouTube video
- PubMed article link: Duffy antigen receptor for chemokines mediates trans-infection of HIV-1 from red blood cells to target cells and affects HIV-AIDS susceptibility
UCL news: Genetic variation increases HIV risk in Africans
- 'More Kidney Stone Disease Projected Due To Global Warming': ScienceDaily article, UT press release