SGU Episode 364

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SGU Episode 364
7th July 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 363                      SGU 365

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


JB: Jann Bellamy

Quote of the Week

I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.

Stephen Hawking

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 27th 2012, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey Guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Ladies and gentlemen, how are you tonight?

S: Quite well, quite well, Evan, thank you.

This Day in Skepticism (0:29)[edit]

  • 1712 - Newcomen Steam Engine

R: Guess what today is?

S: Hit us.

R: Today is the anniversary that the first usable steam engine, known as the Newcomen steam engine, was invented. It was a fore-runner of the slightly more famous Watt steam engine. Though the Watt is more famous, the Newcomen was first and so should rightfully deserve our praise. So, that happened in ... 1712.

S: 1712.

R: Shut up, Steve.

B: Whoa!

R: 1712, which—I was actually going to take a guess before I looked it up and I was going to guess something much, much later. So yeah, it's really impressive that someone developed a working steam engine that early.

S: Yeah, so this is the 300th anniversary. It's actually not today, 'cause obviously it was the process of developing and installing it; I think it went on-line in September of 1712, but—

R: Steve, there was no Internet back then.

S: I know. But the—(laughs) on-line—a machine going on-line was still the—a cromulent term. So ...

R: You've embiggened my vocabulary. Thank you, sir.

S: The U.K. is gearing up for a year-long 300-year anniversary of the Newcomen steam engine. Do you guys know what the engine was used for?

J: To make steam.

E: Hanging witches. Burning witches.

B: For flying airplanes.

S: For getting water out of the bottom of coal mines.

B: Oh, wow.

S: Which was a huge problem.

E: Oh, very practical.

B: That was my second—my second choice.

S: This was at a time when the U.K. was—had pretty much burned through all of their wood. So they needed coal as a fuel source, and how deep you can dig a coal mine was a limiting factor, 'cause water tends to flood and build up at the bottom of the mines. And by using a pump action, like a suction pump, there's a height limit based upon the amount of pressure—that one atmosphere of pressure can produce, and it's something like 30 feet. If you go deeper than 30 feet, there's no way to suck the water out, you have to physically pump it out, and that was not practical by hand or by any mechanism that they had. So, developing a powerful automated steam engine that works as a pump to get the water out of those mines was huge. Although that was the purpose for which the engine was created, it then led to industrial use of the steam engine, the later Watt engine, and then it actually was, is, credited as a major spark of the Industrial Revolution.

J: And Steve, do you think that it inspired people, kind of like, you know, NASA projects inspire us today; maybe back then it was something that got people into technology and into manufacturing.

S: Yeah, I don't know. I don't know what the cultural response to it was, but certainly, industry responded very—saw the potential of it and it exploded, you know, in terms of its utility.

R: Yeah, the corollary to NASA would probably be explorers who were, you know, sailing around and things like that. But this would definitely be, you know... I mean, industry's such a huge driver of technology, particularly, you know, Industrial Revolution.

S: And even though it was primitive by modern standards, it was actually a pretty developed piece of engineering.

B: Hey guys, you know there's—I think there was a precursor to the Newcomen engine, though: Thomas Savery built the first crude steam engine in the late 1600s, so I think we should mention Thomas Savery, who produced a prototype that I think the Newcomen engine was inspired or based on.

R: The nice thing about Thomas Savery's pump is that he called it "The Miner's Friend", which is ready-made for current-day infomercials. Right? OK, it's just me. (chuckles)

J: Go ahead, do it.

R: Go on, like you know, come on! "Get the Miner's—Do you have trouble pumping water out of your mine?" Water goes everywhere. "Get the Miner's Friend!" Come on, you can see it. You can see it.

B: And also guys, before we get lots of emails on this, even the Savery engine, which was the first crude steam engine, even that was based on some guy Denis Papin's digester or pressure cooker of 1679, so—

R: Obviously, though, that's how technology works. There's no—rarely is there ever any miraculous machine that just appears, you know, springs full formed from the brow of an inventor. Every machine is some, you know, improvement over a previous iteration.

S: Yeah, and as I said, there was already signs of some incremental improvement in this; the—but this was the first one that was put into industrial use. That was the milestone.

R: Yeah.

B: OK. Yeah, just wanted to be clear on that.

E: Isn't this how science works, guys, right? You know, you start with simple ideas and then it refines, improves upon—

S: Yeah. And this is engineering; you know, engineering works that way. You try something and then you tweak it and fix it and add another lever here, and that's—those kinds of incremental advances were necessary to get to a full-scale functioning industrial model, but yeah. But Newcomen was the first one to get over that threshold.

News Items[edit]

Water on The Moon and Mars (5:51)[edit] Water Ice in Moon's Shackleton Crater Identified Extensive water in Mars' interior

S: All right well, let's move on. Evan, you're going to tell us about water on the Moon and Mars.

E: Isn't it amazing how wet our solar system actually is, more so than we realize? Thanks to our folks at, who reported that a crater on the Moon, which is a prime target for human exploration, might be rich in ice, though researchers warn it could just as well hold none at all. I really like the way they put that first line in the article: "so there may be something new and exciting happening or maybe it's nothing at all". But that aside, it is still interesting bit of news from the Moon. The scientists investigated Shackleton Crater; it sits almost directly on the Moon's south pole. The crater, named after the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton; it's more than 12 miles wide and 2 miles deep, about as deep as Earth's ocean. The reason they named it after Ernest Shackleton is: he was the famous Irish explorer whose expedition to become the first group of people to traverse the entire continent of Antarctica via crossing the south pole. Very important. It turned disastrous, and Shackleton and his crew were stuck in the Antarctic for many months on end, yet they all managed to survive, so that's why—

B: That is an amazing story.

E: —they gave it that name.

B: I got a book on that, and I read about it, and it was just an amazing, an amazing adventure this guy went through. He had a photographer with him. There's just so many amazing pictures of this ship, his ship, the Endurance stuck in the pack ice and they're just beautiful pictures from so long ago. I recommend everybody checking this guy out in Wikipedia or getting some information on him because it's an amazing story.

E: Most definitely. But, in the meantime, back to the Moon. So, the interiors of polar craters on the Moon are nearly in perpetual darkness, so they're in the dark all the time, and they act as cold traps that the researchers have long suspected might be home to vast amounts of frozen water. So, they're key candidates for human exploration. Previous orbital Earth-based observations yielded conflicting interpretations over whether there is actually ice there. Some have seen the reflective surface inside these craters and they're determining that yes, there's ice that's accumulated at the bottoms of those craters, and that's why they're so reflective; they shine lasers; they point lasers down at them and it shines back up. They're able to measure the shininess of it and they think that that, perhaps, is a layer of frozen ice. But at the same time, they're saying that other sensors have seen no discernible signs of ice, and that the sides of the craters, which sometimes get exposed to the sunlight, measure just as much reflectiveness off those measurements as the bottom had the same amount of shininess to them. So it may not be an indication of water being there. But, they said that water ice in amounts of up to 20% is a viable possibility, but there is some uncertainty there. There's another theory about them, that the reason why the sides of the interior side of the crater are shining is because occasionally you get things called "moonquakes" and what that does is it disturbs the uppermost layer of the Moon and you get—it goes from being the darker gray stuff that accumulates after a while and it replaces it with the shinier stuff, the stuff that's moved in as a result of the moonquakes, and that is—they feel that that might be a reason why the sides of the insides of the craters are shinier. NASA has something called the GRAIL Mission, which is going to do a further investigation into the possibility of there being beds of ice, and therefore water at the bottom of Shackleton Crater, and I'm sure, other craters as well.

J: Cool.

S: And obviously we're very interested in this, because it would make lunar missions and semi-permanent or permanent lunar base a lot easier if there was already—

B: Yeah, 'cause it costs like a trillion dollars per ounce of water (inaudible) gravity well of Earth.

S: —already water there. Remember, we did speak to the gentleman from the company that is—they're planning on mining asteroids[1], and one of the things they're hoping to get from them are volatiles, like water, and that they could then sell to NASA, because it's cheaper to mine water from an asteroid than to bring it off the Earth to Earth orbit or to the Moon, out of the gravity well of the Earth. But of course, if there's already water on the Moon, better still.

E: Yeah, they're going to bring a Newcomen steam engine to pump that water out, so... it's a good design. So yeah, we'll see how that goes. Now, moving over to our neighbor, Mars, right? We know that there's ice on the surface of Mars, it's rather plain to see in photographs of the red planet, with its white polar ice caps in contrast to the red Martian soil, it stands out rather nicely. But how much water is there under the surface of Mars, right?

B: Five gallons.

E: That's the big question, and estimates have—well, it could be that little. Certainly you would—A lot of estimates do have it as relatively small amounts, but estimates have varied, and those estimates have never included ratios approaching the likes of that which we see on a very wet planet like the Earth. But that is, until now. From the website, a good website for all things physics, scientists from Carnegie Institution and the University of New Mexico have analyzed the water content of two Martian meteorites originating from inside the planet Mars. And the science analyzed what are called shergottite meteorites, which are relatively young meteorites, which originated by partial melting of the Martian mantle. The mantle is the layer right under the crust of the planet. They discovered that amounts of water in places in the Martian mantle are vastly larger than previous estimates, and similar to that of Earth's. Based on the water content, the scientists estimate the Martian mantle sources contain between 70 and 300 parts per million water. By comparison, the upper mantle of the Earth contains approximately 50 to 300 parts per million water.

S: Yeah.

E: Very comparable

J: Wow, that's really surprising.

B: Yeah, but I'm a little underwhelmed; I mean, it's not like we can get to it if it's in the damn mantle.

E: No, but it helps bolster the theories, I think, that Mars once was, or still is, a planet capable of sustaining form of life.

J: Yeah, that's true.

S: Well, wouldn't that mean, Bob, that there's probably water closer to the surface and more accessible? And wouldn't this also, for example, support the previous observations that there may be certain times and locations on Mars where water actually bubbles up to the surface?

B: Sure, but from the mantle, though? I'd rather get some results from a test that examined the crust rather than the mantle. But I mean, yeah, this is definitely cool, but just seems like, oh man, it's so deep and inaccessible, even on Mars. But yeah, it could have a domino effect that also means that it's very evident elsewhere, too, of course.

J: Bob, you're deep and inaccessible.

E: These—so, how did, how did samples of the mantle make it to Earth, right?

B: Meteorite impact, I guess.

J: Oh, yeah.

E: Yeah, meteorite impact.

B: Had to, to expose the mantle.

J: Evan, it's really obvious: the face on Mars sneezed, and it just blew it right over to us, man.

B: Ha

E: Oh, Hoagland is loving that theory, I tell you.

R: Hoagland!

E: Bob, you're right: the meteorite impacts with Mars have sent the debris up into space and for a long time, it hangs out out there, and some of it eventually drifts down to Earth, and we're able to identify, collect these samples, and analyze them. But there's another step to that process by which—you would have to have a pretty good smack in order to, I think, get down to the mantle—

B: Damn yeah.

E: —of the surface. But they—the researchers are suggesting that volcanoes on Mars initially brought up these chunks of mantle to the surface, through volcanic activity, and then when the meteorites hit, that blew those samples into space.

Swiss Report on Homeopathy (13:59)[edit]

Science-Based Medicine: The Swiss Report on Homeopathy

S: All right, well, let's move on. Have you guys heard of the Swiss report on homeopathy?

E: Lotta holes in that report!

B: Oh, God.


R: Dear lord. Let's just shut it down; let's shut the whole podcast down; we're done. We're done. The pun that ruined us.

S: I thought it was a good one, actually. Good one, Evan.

E: Thank you very much.

B: Evan, I thought that was so cheesy, come on.

S: (laughing)

R: See, that's why. That's why. 'Cause it inspires now a whole—go on. Keep going.

E: You can bank on it.

R: Get it out of your system

S. All right. Well.

E: What else we got?

R: I'm neutral on the subject.

E: Exa—(laughs) good one, Rebecca. I think you just saved the show.

S: Are you done? OK. So, a number of countries have, you know, put together expert panels under one venue or another in order to review the evidence for homeopathy; essentially they answer the question should they be reimbursing or paying for homeopathy as part of their health service or should insurance companies be required to cover homeopathy as legitimate medical treatment? Just for a quick review, homeopathy is a two-hundred-year-old pre-scientific system of medicine that is based upon notions such as "like cures like", which is really a form of sympathetic superstitious magic, not based on any scientific principle. Homeopathic potions are typically diluted to the point where there isn't likely to be a single molecule of active ingredient left, so they're essentially fanciful treatments diluted into non-existence. There's no evidence that they work; there's no plausible mechanism by which they can work. The U.K.—actually, I know we discussed this before[link needed]: Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy.[2] In 2010, the U.K. government did a very thorough review of homeopathy and concluded that homeopathy is witchcraft; it doesn't work; it can't work; it's completely unscientific; we shouldn't pay for it, and we shouldn't put any research money into it. An excellent report and conclusion.

B: Plus the only reason it ever became popular was because that long ago, doing nothing was better than the crap they were doing today, so that's the only reason it took off.

S: Yeah, there was a lot of poison-based medicine popular at the time, like using minerals and mercury and things like that—

E: "Poison-based medicine"?

S: I mean, we're not talking about modern pharmaceuticals, we're just—you probably were better off having nothing done than going to a mainstream practitioner a couple hundred years ago, so yeah, there was a certain advantage to doing nothing.

B: Death-based medicine.

S: But in any case, the Swiss did a similar—you know, put an expert panel together, they produced a report about homeopathy, coming to the opposite conclusion of the U.K. panel, concluding that—

B: Oh, God.

S: —homeopathy—there's something to homeopathy; it works better than placebo, there's science to support its mechanism, and yeah, we should do it.

B: "Science to support the mechanism", they said that too?

S: Oh yeah, in fact, it's not only effective, it's cost-effective; they concluded it was cost-effective.

B: Well, yeah, water's cheap.

E: What data were they looking at?

S: They were looking at the exact same data that the U.K. panel looked at.

E: So you have two different groups and coming to two totally different conclusions (inaudible)

S: Think about that for a second.

B: There is no hope.

S: So of course, homeopathy proponents and apologists jumped on that. You guys know Dana Ullman, right? He's infamous as a terrible homeopathy apologist on the internet. He blogs for ... The HuffPo, Huffington Post. So of course, he wrote an article on The Huffington Post, saying how wonderful the report was.[3] He opens up with this: "The Swiss government has a long and widely respected history of neutrality, and therefore, reports from this government on controversial subjects need to be taken more seriously than other reports from countries that are more strongly influenced by the present economic and political constituencies." So he's kind of setting up—he doesn't actually ever refer directly to the Evidence Check, you know, U.K. homeopathy report, but clearly he's trying to say, "this is the report we should listen to because the Swiss are neutral." Well, that, it turns out, and you will not be surprised to learn, is a complete and total crock. The reason why we're talking about this today—this is something that was actually published in 2011, and then the English version was published back in February; Ullman's article was published a month ago—but, there's a recent article that I wrote about on Science-based Medicine today by a gentleman named Shaw who analyzed the Swiss homeopathy report and found a number of interesting things. First of all, despite the fact that the members of the panel reported that they had no conflicts of interest, they were all, except for one, all of the medical experts on the panel, save one, were homeopaths!

B: Oh my God, who picked them?

R: Shocker.

E: Wow

S: They picked themselves; I mean, this was a totally trumped-up, rigged panel of homeopaths and alternative medicine proponents who decided that they were going to create a report favorable to homeopathy. And Shaw demonstrated that first of all, they have conflicts of interests they didn't disclose, and that's in violation of their own rules and ethics, and further, what they did was they changed the rules of evidence in order to come to the conclusions that they did. They said that "well, it's not really fair to use double-blind placebo-controlled trials to evaluate homeopathic remedies; we think that real-world evidence is better."

B: So, let's go with anecdote—

J: "Real-world evidence"?

B: So, let's go with anecdote. "I shall manipulate science!"

S: That's exactly right; they're talking about anecdotes, or so-called "pragmatic studies", which are not double-blind or controlled. So it's an elaborate hand-waving argument for using less rigorous, unreliable evidence and to trump the more reliable, rigorously controlled studies. That's how they looked at the same data and came to the opposite conclusion: they changed the rules. They turned the normal rules of science on its head in order to come to a pre-determined conclusion.

B: Can we sue them?

S: We can ridicule them.

B: I want them to go to jail for that.

E: Go directly to jail.

R: Science jail.

S: Yeah, science jail. This was—

(all chuckling)

S: With homeopathy, which, to me, I'm fascinated with, just as somebody who's interested in pathological science, because a lot of studies have been done with homeopathy, and you could look at the literature, and what we see is a very clear pattern that there's lots of poor studies—of low-methodological quality studies—with a huge scattering of results, but there's this bias of positivity; there's more positive than negative studies. However, the better quality studies, then there's less and less scatter; that's sort of the funnel plot pattern that you see if you graph study quality by the outcome, you see this pyramid shape zeroing in on the real effect of the treatment. In this case, it zeros in on ... zero, on nothing. So the best studies tend to be negative. So scattering of the weak studies with this bias towards positivity, researcher and publication bias, and then—but the best studies—the better the study, the more likely they are to be negative, and the best studies are all negative. Right? Whenever you get to a rigorous, well-controlled study, it's negative. That's the pattern that we see when the null hypothesis is true; when the treatment doesn't work. We see it over and over again, we see it in ESP studies, in homeopathy studies, in acupuncture studies and therapeutic touch studies, whatever. You look at anything where the null hypothesis is overwhelmingly likely to be true, that's the pattern that we see. So, they looked at that pattern, and they decided to just go with the biased poor-quality studies. Shaw's identified a very key quote in the—in the report. Let me read you—this is him quoting the Swiss report. They said, "If homeopathy is highly likely to be effective but this cannot be consistently proven in clinical trials, the question arises of what conditions are needed for homeopathy to show its effectiveness and realise its potential, and what conditions threaten to obscure this?" You get what they're saying there? They're saying, "let's assume that homeopathy works. How can we look at the data to show that it works and to promote homeopathy and how can we avoid the kinds of data that will show that it doesn't work?"

E: Start with a conclusion and you tailor it (inaudible)

S: Exactly.

B: Sounds familiar.

S: Exactly. Classic pseudoscience: start with the conclusion that you want and then figure out how to work backwards with the evidence to get to that conclusion.

J: But they're so blind to logic that they don't even know when they make statements like that, that are open to the public, how moronic they look.

S: Yeah, because they—Jay, because if they weren't blind to science, they wouldn't be homeopaths! Right?


S: I mean, the fact that they're homeopaths —

R: It's self-evident.

S: We know that they're scientifically illiterate, almost by definition. So, yeah. Absolutely horrific. That's what Dana Ullman was promoting as this "oh, the Swiss are unbiased and how wise they are." No. This was a put-up job; the fix was in; it was a bunch of homeopaths twisting the evidence, coming to a predetermined conclusion; it was utter nonsense. And it's being exposed as such in the mainstream literature, which is good, although, again, you never know how much attention this kind of stuff gets. But this is also a microcosm of alternative medicine in general; this is what they're doing. They're playing with the scientific evidence, they're turning things on its head, they're abusing logic, they're abusing methodology, and they're infiltrating the mechanisms of governments and experts and academia in doing this kind of shenanigans. And then they get called on it and not much seems to happen, because most people just don't care, you know?

J: What's funny about homeopathy is, it's incredibly inert, but the practice of it is absolute poison. The thing about this that is like a foundational type of skeptical topic is that they pretty much fail at every corner. Like, number one, and the first thing that always pops into my head whenever we get into a rant about homeopathy is: OK, so you have some medicine here that you call medicine, you think it works, so what's with the double-blind test, like, let's see the results of your actual tests for it to do any of the thousand things that you claim that these treatments can do. They don't even test it to see if it works.

S: Yeah. They're asking the question, "let me make sure it actually really works", they're looking "how can we show that it does work", 'cause they know in their heart that it does, because they're naive, because they're convinced by anecdotal evidence and they grossly underestimate the power of self-deception. Because they're not skeptics. And you know, so, when you are not aware of how powerfully we can deceive ourselves, you end up being convinced by what you think you see, and then you proceed from that basis, from that premise. That's the problem. And it's really hard to explain to people and get them to understand "no, yeah, this can all be a deception." They just can't believe it; they can't buy it. That seems more extraordinary to them than the notion that water can have memory and magical energy and whatnot. That's the world-view problem that we're having. So there we go.

Twisted Light (25:55)[edit]

BBC News: 'Twisted light' carries 2.5 terabits of data per second

S: All right. Let's get to some positive science news; Jay, you're gonna tell us about packing incredible amounts of data into light beams.

J: This was a item that was reported by Nature Photonics[4], and in today's data transmission world, when we transmit data, say, fiber optically, more data is packed onto the light waves by encoding that data slightly differently, with colored light, right? So you have all the spectrum of visible light, and even things that go beyond visible light that they can send information over. But you just think of it as different colors of light, and very slight differences in these light frequencies and each one of them can carry its own data stream. And at the receiving end of those transmissions that we use to transmit large chunks of data, they use a technique called multiplexing to split up the light into its different colors and then they read it and they decode it after they split it up, and that all by itself is phenomenally complicated. Now that lets us read each color as a separate data stream. Now scientists have discovered that they can encode even more data into the same transmission by using a technique that uses something called the orbital angular momentum of the light, or OAM. Today light is only transmitted using spin angular momentum, or SAM, so that's a different thing, and I'm going to give you a description of these two things briefly. Now, both of these concepts have to do with the polarization of light. If I'm going to use the Earth as an example of these two different ways that they transmit data, OAM and SAM, SAM is like the Earth spinning on its axis, so the Earth is just spinning around, while OAM is the Earth's movement around the Sun. It's two different kinds of movement by the same object. These two techniques that they use, or these two ways that light can be transmitted, or information can be transmitted using light, have these two different ways that they can encode that information into the light. Fiber optic networks still have plenty of room, though, to expand on, because of how flexible they are and how much light that we could pump through them and they don't see a limit in the new future about how much more we can push through them. But the real things that are going to benefit from this increase in bandwidth are wireless networks, and the reason why is we've pretty much used all the frequencies that we can on wireless networks and we're finding, as time goes on, that we're at the end of how much data we can send over the wireless networks, 'cause it's a limited bandwidth that we can send data over. With this technology, however, scientists could enormously expand on its capacity, and they were saying theoretically there's no limit to how many times that they can add like this twisting data—this folding of data back into the same stream of light. Because of this technology and because of this concept that they've realized and that they've actually achieved in the lab, they've made it so wireless networks, which are now at the end of their usefulness to us as far as how much more we can pump through them with the limited spectrum that we use to transmit data, this just seemingly is an unlimited ceiling. Eventually, as we figure out—as our software and our hardware gets better, we're just going to continue to be able to fold more and more data into the same data stream, which seems unbelievable, but that's what the scientists are claiming. Now here are some stats to—so you can kind of wrap your head around how much data we're talking about. They said that they have—they were able to achieve 2.5 terabits of data per second, which is about 66 DVDs or 7 BluRay movies worth of data per second. That—

B: Holy crap.

J: —that they did in the lab successfully. They—

S: And was that—that was through fiber optics?

J: No, that was transmitted through the air.

S: Ah.

J: Now, they're saying that they can get that up to about a kilometer. That's when things start to really happen here. And they're thinking that this is going to pop within about three years, that they're actually going to be able to be using this for real-life situations, and this is promising because typically, you know how everything is five years, five years, "in five years we're going to do this". Well, they're saying three years. So three years means they have hurdles to get over, but they know what the hurdles are and they know that they can get over them. This is very good news, guys, and this is exciting stuff, and it's right around the corner, so you know, we're gonna probably not see this in the home soon, but we're definitely going to see this technology ramped out to, I'd say bigger networks and, you know, like for example, there are huge public spaces that have WiFi or towns that use WiFi systems and all that and eventually it'll trickle down into the home, but for now, we have this to look forward to for the bigger applications.

B: Jay, an important drawback is this has to be used—it's a visible point-to-point, you know, you have to see where you want to send this thing, 'cause the signal going through the atmosphere degrades the signal, so there's a limit to how far this can go, at least with the way the technology is currently envisioned.

J: That's true, but Bob, they said in outer space, satellite to satellite, there's no turbulence from the atmosphere and it's—

B: Absolutely.

S: Yeah, but Jay, but in outer space, no one can hear you scream.

B: Oh God.

R: (disgusted) Uhhh.

E: What can they hear you do?

J: Prometheus was so bad, that yes, you can hear people screaming in outer space now.


S: All right. But that brings me back to the whole fiber optic thing; isn't that the solution if we're going to be actually using this to download porn in our living room, Jay; isn't it going to be through fiber optics?

E: Yeah, Jay.

J: Well, it's a good question; you know, I'll answer that question by raising some more questions and concerns. One, in the United States, we are not wired very well for—with fiber optics. The backbone in the United States is fiber optic but the local towns and cities and everything, there's not that much fiber optic going still to this day; it's a slow, slow creep.

S: But that's happening; that's the phase we're in right now is the rolling out of fiber optic to the home. It may take ten years or something, but there are some homes who have it now, and it always starts with the most densely populated areas, and then creeps out to the less and less populated areas, so.

Embodied Cognition (32:16)[edit] What Finger-counting Says About You and Your Brain

S: All right, Rebecca, love this next news item about embodied cognition. Tell us about that.

R: Yeah, this is fun. OK. So on a previous episode of this show[5], this very show, I spoke about a study that found that people who were in lab coats felt more doctor-like, like more careful, rigorous, good at paying attention, and I mentioned that they had cheekily called that "enclothed cognition", and I mentioned that that was a play on the phrase "embodied cognition", which is a psychological concept in which your physical body affects you think. So this study that just came out[6] falls into that category of embodied cognition. Prior to this study, I should mention, that there have been other studies that suggest that finger counting—the way you count your fingers when you're doing math, or at least maybe the way you used to count your fingers when you were a kid—directly impacts the way that you process numbers in your head. The study that we're going to talk about looked at how different cultures count their fingers. So before I get into this, I'd like everyone on this show to briefly start counting on your fingers: one, two, three, four, five. Jay, how did—describe for me how you counted on your fingers.

J: I flicked out the thumb on my right hand; you know, thumb, pointer finger, middle finger, ring finger, pinky.

R: OK. Interesting. Evan?

B: Really? You freak.

E: In this particular case, Rebecca, I did what Jay did and I started with the thumb, but I must admit, when I have done this before, I started with the index finger on my left hand.

R: OK. Bob?

B: Index finger. I did it the right way.

R: On which hand, Bob?

E: The American way!

B: My right hand. I realize it's based on culture, but yeah, I use the North American mode of counting on fingers.

R: And Steve, how did you do it?

S: Index finger on my—starting with a closed fist, then opening my index finger on the left hand and then going from there.

R: OK. So, yeah, Evan and Steve are the only ones who did it the North American way, I guess—

B: What are you talking about?

R:—as the researchers figured out. Well, Bob, the only difference with you is that you used your right hand instead of your left hand. So there are a lot of like, tiny details that these researchers looked into in which they found a huge diversity in how different cultures count their fingers.

B: So where do I belong? Do I have to move?

R: Bob, you are in some no-man's land.

S: Now Rebecca, Jay is left-handed; does that have an impact on why he used his right hand?

R: I didn't—you know, I didn't find anything like that, because you assume, you know, so what is it, three-quarters of the population is right-handed, but culturally there are different cultures that always start with the left hand, which implies that it doesn't actually—it's not based on which hand is strongest to you.

E: I have a theory—

R: All right.

E: I have a little theory on that as I was thinking about this. When you're young and you're in school and you're learning to count, you are using your fingers, at least in my school, they encouraged it. I had a pencil in my right hand; I had to use my left hand to start counting.

R: That's a good point. Yeah, that's—that's a possibility—

J: That's interesting.

R: —although, there are also some countries where they start with their right hand. So, I'll explain for you some of the interesting differences because I think that's what everybody wants to hear.

S: Right. And if you're impersonating a Nazi, start with your thumb.


B: Oh, God. OK.

E: We knew that was going to come up.

B: Inglourious Basterd.

R: Actually, Europe tended to hold a closed left fist and start with counting their thumb first, then their forefinger, middle, ring, pinky, so yeah. China and the U.S. started with the closed left fist and went forefinger first, then middle, ring, pinky, thumb. Iran starts with the right pinky, then ring, then middle, then forefinger, then thumb, so they go in the opposite direction. American Sign Language, for that you use left forefinger, then middle, thumb, ring and pinky with the thumb down, then all five. Japanese start with an open hand and then close all their fingers one at a time, starting with the pinky —

B: That's bizarre.

J: They close their fingers?

B: Yup. That's freaky.

R: Yes. In India—

S: See, that's a variable I wouldn't have thought to even consider.

R: I'm working my way up to the one that I found most interesting; I've got two more. So one is—I didn't see exactly how this works, but I did see a reference to the fact—in this study, they found that in India, they use finger segments in order to count higher than ten—

B: Cool!

R:—up to twenty.

E: Oh yeah.

R: And, the most interesting to me is the Pekai-Alue in Papua New Guinea. That was the most interesting to me. Their count is done by the number of fingers folded, not the number of fingers extended. So, they represent the number one by holding out all of their fingers except the pinky with the left hand. And then for the number two, they show the thumb, forefinger and middle finger; you know, they just close the ring finger. For three, they close the middle finger. For four, they only show the thumb with the closed fist, and five is a closed fist. Isn't that interesting?

B: Wow.

J: Wow, that's crazy.

R: So, what the researchers suggested though, in line with the theories of embodied cognition, is that the way we count the fingers directly affects the way we envision numbers, the way our brains process numbers. And, they say that the bit of our brain that processes what our fingers are doing, in any situation, is the same part of our brain that also helps us mentally visualize a number. So basically, when you're young, you start to count with your fingers and that teaches your brain—that specific part of your brain—it teaches that part to control both figuring out where your fingers are and envisioning numbers. So because of that, the researchers suggested that going forward, future researchers should look into exactly the ways that different cultures envision numbers and see how those match up to how they use their fingers when they count. So, pretty cool.

B: Yeah, wow.

S: Yeah, and this is actually just the next step in research and thinking about embodied cognition that's been going on for decades, which I've been reading about a lot. The current thinking is that, or one school of thought on this is that if you go back to ... like, the middle of the twentieth century, like Chomsky, the notion was that language exists outside—it's its own thing, it's not—you know what I mean, it's sort of a construct that ... it's like the software and the computer is the hardware, but the hardware—it doesn't have any direct relationship to the software. Embodied cognition's the opposite; that's like, nope, the software is—reflects the underlying hardware and how it processes information, and a lot of how we think about things, not just numbers; a lot of how we think about the world uses physical metaphors to represent abstract concepts, and it's not a language thing. Again, that was the original thought, maybe it's just a language artifact, but they think that it's not. It actually—the abstract metaphor derives from how we physically experience the world. Let me give you an example. We use emotional, like, positive emotional connection we think of as warmth. You're "warming up to somebody"; somebody is a warm, you know, emotional disposition. If someone is being distant, they're "cold", right? So you think that's just a linguistic metaphor, but they say no, maybe not. Maybe when we're babies, connect the physical warmth of our mother or our parent with the emotion, the positive emotion of a connection, and our brain makes that connection between the physical warmth and tight bonding with another human being, and therefore, that metaphor gets stuck in our brain, and that gets reflected in the language. Does that make sense?

J: Yes.

B: It does, it's cool.

S: And when researchers started looking for this, they found them everywhere. And just think about language for a second. We talk about if you're dominating somebody, you're "above them"; you're physically above them. Think about this one: if think about the future, which is an abstract concept, the future is somehow physically going forward and the past is physically going backward. And what researchers have found and we talked about some studies that show this, but just to put it all into context, if people are talking about the future, they actually physically lean forward while they're talking about the future, or they physically lean backward when they're talking about the past. The physical position and the temporal position are linked in the brain; the brain is actually making that connection, because that's how it grapples with concepts and with the world.

Who's That Noisy? (41:23)[edit]

Answer to last week: gamma ray burst

S: Evan!

E: Hey, doc.

S: Please regale us with this week's Who's That Noisy results.

E: I shall, right at this exact moment. Here we go.

(piano music)

E: Very dramatic, huh?

(murmuring agreement)

E: Yes, yes, music. So remember, if you remember from last week, we said that this music was a representation of something scientific, and it was up to you, the audience, to figure out exactly what that representation was. Courtesy of our friends at NASA Blogs, this is the musical representation of a gamma ray burst.

S: I was going to say cosmic rays, but gamma rays is...

E: Yeah, gamma rays.

R: Pretty but deadly.

E: The music was made by Sylvia Zhu and Judy Racusin, and they describe it as such:

Every photon has its own energy and frequency; the higher the energy, the higher the frequency.

E: Makes sense.

Some photons have just the right frequencies for us to see them as different colors, while others—such as the gamma rays studied by the Fermi LAT—are much too energetic to be seen with our eyes. Sound waves have frequencies too, and similarly, we can hear some of them as musical notes. So [this is] what happens if we convert high-energy photons into musical notes.[7]


J: It's very cool.

E: For this week, we've got something entirely different. And now for something entirely different. Was that a Monty Python, or a...

S: Yeah, that was a segue. "And now for something completely different."

E: That's what I'm talking about. All right, here we go. Who's That Noisy, brand new, here we go.

Some open-minded skeptics, as I am, and others, who are closed-minded skeptics, those who don't accept the afterlife

S: So wait a minute; so the closed-minded skeptics are the ones who don't accept an afterlife?

E: According to this person, that is exactly correct. Closed-minded.

S: That's a logical fallacy there. Begging the Question.

E: A-hah!

S: A legitimate begging the question. Because he's assuming that it's reasonable to believe in the afterlife, or the afterlife is real and therefore you must be closed-minded if you reject it. So that's begging the very question, isn't it.

E: That is a beautiful Who's That Noisy this week; beautiful example of begging the question, and we would like to know if you know who that is, and let us know at, that is our email. And our forums, if you would prefer to answer there, are Good luck everyone.

S: Yeah. We snuck in a little Name that Logical Fallacy, too.

News Update - Causeway Cannibal (44:17)[edit]

Neurologica: Causeway Killer Mystery

R: Hey guys, I have some interesting breaking news for you related to a previous news item we discussed.

E: I love breaking news, Rebecca!

R: Don't we all? Well, a couple weeks ago, we talked about the "Causeway Cannibal".[8] Which is the guy who was suspected to be high on all sorts of drugs, including bath salts or—I think it was assumed that maybe synthetic marijuana, a bunch of different drugs—attacked a homeless man and ripped his face off, basically; chewed off pieces of his face. And we had one update to this, I think, didn't we? Am I mis-remembering?

S: We did. We had email—an email where we said yes it was speculation; we were waiting for the toxicology.

R: Right. Well, the coroner's report is now in, as of just—the day that we're recording this, which is Wednesday, June 27th, and according to the autopsy, the man, named Rudy Eugene, was not high on bath salts or synthetic marijuana or any drug that could be detected in his system. It was understood that he had smoked marijuana—regular marijuana—earlier in the day, but that was unable to be detected, I guess, with the limits of the test that they were running.

S: No, I think that they did detect marijuana, but they can't say how recently he ingested it because it stays in the system for so long.

R: Ah, OK. Thank you. Yes. They did confirm the absence of bath salts, synthetic marijuana and LSD.

S: Yeah. Although, this does make the story more interesting. So, I think there's two possibilities here. Something either—so, if he had only marijuana in his system, which really couldn't account for this behavior, then we have no way to account for this rather extreme behavior, although he does have some history of mental illness, nothing like this. I don't know what another possibility would be; there's no neurological condition that causes people to behave this way. The other possibility is that he was under the influence of some drug but it just wasn't one that they tested for. Toxicology doesn't test for any possible drug, but only for specific known drugs that you're looking for. That still is an open possibility, and it'll be interesting to see if further information comes to light. We may never have the final answer in this case, if it wasn't a drug that can be tested for or that was tested for. Well, let's go on with our interview.

Interview with Jann Bellamy (46:45)[edit]

Wireless Waste: Portland schools have had to spend $172,000 fighting a parent's lawsuit over Wi-Fi

S: We are joined now by Jann Bellamy. Jann, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

JB: Thanks, it's nice to be here.

S: And Jann is one of my fellow—founding fellows—of the Institute for Science in Medicine and also blogs for us over at Science-Based Medicine, and she's the founder and president of Science-Based Healthcare, a Florida non-profit whose mission is to promote, essentially, science and health care. And you're a practicing attorney, and we asked you to come on the show today to discuss an interesting case that has a lot of legal aspects to it and, as some of our readers are fond of pointing out, none of us are lawyers. And so we don't really know what we're talking about. So, I thought it would be a good idea to get an actual lawyer on the show to give us the skinny. So, the case involves a family who was suing a school system over alleged damage from Wi-Fi in the school system. Could you tell us about—just summarize the case for us?

JB: Sure. The plaintiffs are a father and his daughter; the daughter is a middle-school student out in Oregon. They claim that there is scientific evidence that Wi-Fi causes various harms to children and adults, and that the daughter is suffering physical damage because of this, although she doesn't have any real symptoms that have shown up, but in any event, they're saying that the school board should be enjoined from using Wi-Fi.

S: Are they suing for damages as well as trying to stop them from having Wi-Fi in the school?

JB: No, no damages; just an injunction.

S: So is this based on just theoretical risk from Wi-Fi; they're not actually claiming actual damage has occurred?

JB: Right. Well, they do claim that damage is ongoing to her body, but there's nothing that has shown up that they can point to. They say that Wi-Fi is inherently damaging.

S: OK, just that it's damaging, not that there's any evidence or symptoms or signs that damage has occurred in this case.

JB: No, there are not.

S: OK, so it's really just all hypothetical.

JB: Exactly.

S: So then, of course, that's what the case can focus on: just the question, "does Wi-Fi cause damage".

JB: Right. Well, there's some other issues, jurisdictional issues, but that is the battle of the experts that's going on in the case right now. Both sides have moved for what's called summary judgment, saying that there are no real questions of fact and they are entitled to win as a matter of law, and they're also both trying to exclude the other's experts under Daubert[9].

S: Could you explain Daubert for a little background for our listeners?

JB: Sure. Daubert is a division of the U.S. Supreme Court which interpreted the federal rules of evidence to require certain basic elements before an opinion of an expert could be admitted into testimony, and the judge acts as a gatekeeper to keep out so-called "junk science" from getting before the jury. And the question is, "is the evidence that the expert wants to testify to, is it reliable and is it relevant?". And 'reliability' looks to whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid. In other words, it's the same sort of thing a scientist would look to to see if he or she would think that this particular theory is valid. And 'relevance' just asks whether that reasoning or methodology can be applied to the facts of the particular case.

S: So essentially, the question is, "is the expert a legitimate scientific expert, and is their expertise relative to the questions they're going to be addressing?".

JB: Relevant. Yes. That's true, and the expert has to be qualified appropriately to testify.

S: Right. So I mean, it seems like a pretty reasonable rule, and that it could effectively keep rank pseudoscientists out of the courtroom. Does it, in practice, work that way?

JB: It's an imperfect system, and I think one of the biggest issues is that judges and juries aren't scientists. And it's extremely hard for the layperson, and I can testify to this myself, to understand even basic science principles sometimes. And so, it is sometimes an uphill struggle to educate the judge on the underlying science, whatever's at issue in your case.

S: Yeah, so essentially, we're—you're gathering scientists to explain sometimes complicated science to a judge and maybe a jury who are likely to be laypeople and not be scientific experts themselves.

JB: Right; they almost always are laypeople, and... First you have to convince the judge to keep the evidence out altogether, but then if he rules against you on that issue, then you're going to have the task of explaining the science to the jury.

S: So in this particular case, both sides are still—it sounds like it's probably standard procedure; you put in a motion for summary judgment, right? Both sides are usually going to do that in a case like this?

JB: Well, you would certainly attack the other side's scientific, quote-unquote, "experts" with a motion to keep their testimony out; that's a separate motion than the motion for summary judgment. They just happened to be filed at the same time in this case because the defendants have other grounds on which they're trying to defeat this claim.

S: And what's that, so other than just saying "the science says there's no physical danger from Wi-Fi", what are the other grounds?

JB: Well, the main argument is that the Portland school system is well within the FCC's guidelines on Wi-Fi and they say the plaintiffs are essentially trying to argue with the FCC guidelines and they should take that up with the FCC, not the court.

S: I see. That sounds like a good argument.

JB: It does; I think they have a good chance on that argument. And that would avoid the whole issue of experts; you wouldn't even get to the facts of the case.

S: Right. Right, right. It would say, "The FCC's already decided that." So that's almost like a jurisdictional issue then, is that correct?

JB: It is exactly that.

S: OK. I see.

B: Do you think—do you think the judge will decide that &nash; you have to take it up with the FCC and just end this whole thing, or do you think that's likely at this point, or you think that's a long shot?

JB: I don't know what the judge'll do; I'm hesitant to speculate on that. I think they do have a good argument that this is something that the plaintiffs need to take up with the FCC and they might well win on that, and that would make the case basically go away.

S: Another issue that this case has raised, and this has been the subject of a lot of the reporting on it, is that the school system has already spent $172,000 of taxpayer money—that's in the education budget, I assume—to defend against this lawsuit, which to me, seems to be like a frivolous pseudoscientific case.

JB: Right.

S: Is there any way to keep this kind of thing from happening? To keep limited taxpayer resources or education funds or—it may not always be a school that's being sued—from being wasted by people who are raising lawsuits that are essentially based entirely on pseudoscience?

JB: Well, there's not a lot you can do up front; you can of course purchase liability insurance and I think it's a good idea to defend these suits vigorously and send out the message that you're not gonna roll over. There is something you can do after the fact, and that is move for attorney's fees and costs based on an allegation that the suit was frivolous or malicious or without basis in fact and sometimes those motions are granted and it ends up costing the plaintiff a lot of money. And that sends a message.

S: Does that happen often?

JB: It's very hard for a defendant in a case like this to show that the suit was absolutely frivolous, no basis in fact; in fact, one of the problems is that these quote-unquote "experts" can throw out enough junk that makes it seem like, you know, there may be something there.

S: They can create just enough doubt that it would be hard to say that this was an entirely baseless suit, even if the judge was against the plaintiff.

JB: Right, and judges are reluctant to impose that kind of penalty on plaintiffs.

S: Yeah, and in this case, this is just a private citizen who's probably unlikely to have a couple hundred thousand dollars laying around that they could use to pay the school system's legal fees.

JB: Although, he is paying his attorneys, I assume, and some costs, so I don't know who is funding this suit, if he has the money to do that. Interestingly, most, and perhaps all, of his six experts are not charging any fees; it's pretty clear that they are part of a cause, if you would like to call it that; people who want to make the point that Wi-Fi causes harm, and they have set up various organizations to promote that. There's one woman who's an expert who is actually a biologist who is saying there's a condition called electrosensitivity that makes certain people extremely susceptible to Wi-Fi.

S: Yeah, that's the Canadian researcher Magda Havas, she's like the one scientist who's really pushing notion of electrosensitivity.[10]

JB: Another thing you see in this case is this sort of conspiracy theory that the government is in the hands of industry; the—one of the plaintiffs' motion refers to the American Cancer Society as "the Goldman-Sachs of health care" and says that the FDA has been corrupted and points to the dental amalgam filling issue as evidence of that.[11]

S: Yeah. I imagine the courts are not very amenable to those theories.

JB: No, and I think the plaintiffs have done themselves a disservice in bringing up that sort of thing. It's not relevant, and they can't prove it and it just raises the eyebrows as to what they're up to.

S: Yeah, it seems remarkably short-sighted to raise wacky, unprovable conspiracy theories as part of your case where the point of the case is to try to gain legitimacy—the perception of legitimacy for your cause.

JB: Exactly.

J: So, Jann, what do you think one of the next steps would be to help correct this?

JB: It would take a change in the law to ease the standard for awarding attorney's fees and costs, and I don't see that happening. You know, you have to think about the bigger issues here; you don't really want to discourage people from legitimately exercising their right to bring suit in non-frivolous cases, and there's a fine line there, sometimes, and you have to not have policies that discourage legitimate claims being brought into court.

S: Yeah, it's a tricky balancing act, but one question I always have with—when these kind of issues come up, and historically, this happens over and over again, where—like, for a time in the first half of the 20th century, there was a belief that minor trauma could produce cancer, and there were therefore hundreds of lawsuits based upon that theory. But once a theory like that, like "Wi-Fi causes physical harm" in this case, gets shot down scientifically, is there a way to make all of the cases dry up. In other words, is there a way to establish a precedent—a legal precedent—that Wi-Fi does not cause harm, let's say, that would short-circuit any future attempts at individual lawsuits based upon that theory?

JB: Well, I suppose it could become so well-established—although it is well-established—that you'd be subject to sanctions in the form of attorney's fees and costs if you brought such a suit, but there's no way to establish precedent that I know of, like legal precedent, that decides an issue once and for all. Because it's a factual, not a legal issue.

S: Yeah, but it just becomes a loser for attorneys.

JB: Exactly.

S: It's like, if every case based upon this theory is losing, even to the point of, as you say, getting counter-sued for legal fees, then no attorney's going to take it up any more, 'cause they're not going to make money off of it.

JB: Exactly.

S: That's the—I guess what limits abuse in the—our current system.

JB: Now if there come to be a whole bunch of these suits filed in the federal court system, the court administrative office that oversees all the federal district courts could consolidate the cases with one judge. That's what happened in the breast cancer—I mean, I'm sorry, the breast implant cases; they got all the cases before one judge, and he said, "look there's just no evidence here".

S: All right, well, Jann, thank you so much for joining us tonight and discussing this issue. These kind of things come up frequently, so it's nice to have a legal expert on hand to help us sort through it.

JB: Well, thank you for having me on.

Science or Fiction (1:01:12)[edit]

(jingle) Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week. The theme is "astronomical news items", just because those were the three that I found. Not really planning on doing that, just—there were three good astronomical news items. All right, here we go. Item number one: An international team of scientists have discovered that super-sized space tornadoes may explain why the sun's atmosphere is much hotter than its surface. Item number two: Astronomers have detected what they believe to be the first trinary planetary system - three exoplanets sharing the same orbit. And item number three: Astronomers have developed a new method for both accurately weighing exoplanets and detecting the composition of their atmosphere, even those that are non-transiting. Jay, go first.

J: Yeah, that first one about scientists discovered super-sized space tornadoes. The hell? Like seriously, super-sized—on an astronomical level—space tornadoes. Like, if you just tell me that there's solid platinum sharks swimming around in the space tornadoes, I'm done for. That's pretty much it.

R: It's a new worst nightmare.

J: Like, I don't quite get this one because it's so horrifying. But like, I guess there's tornadoes on the surface of the frickin' sun. OK. Yup. Those are real; they have to be because this is the world I live in. All right, the second one about the trinary planetary system. The trinary planetary system. That rhymes. Sure, OK, you got three planets; they're in the same orbit, they're going around the same sun; they don't crash into each other. They probably are friends; get together at holidays for drinks and whatnot. I'm assuming now that if that's the case, I'm interested to hear when Steve talks about this how close in size they are and all that stuff... And that last one... OK, so this one—the one about being able to weigh an exoplanet or measure—figure out what they weigh and also detecting the composition of their atmosphere—I could—yeah, that one doesn't seem too incredibly far-fetched, depending on how accurate they claim the information is. I am going to go with the trinary system as being the fake because I'm assuming that the planets would have collided with each other or screwed each other up somehow, and if something like that did happen, it wouldn't last that long. That's the one I'm going to pick.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: OK, space tornado. Uh, yes; I think that sounds awesome, and I think if it's not true, then some super-villain should put some effort into making it true. And also, I propose that instead of "space tornado", we call it "starnado". "Starnado"; thank you.

J: Yeah, I see where you went with that.

R: That's where I'm going. Yep. So I think that that one is true. So for me, I'm—I've been debating between the trinary planetary system and the weighing of exoplanets. I mean, a few weeks ago/months ago—I have no concept of time—we talked about how difficult it is to see storms on exoplanets, so... yeah, so to think that there's a method accurately weighing an exoplanet and detecting what the atmosphere is made of; that's a big leap; both the weighing and the atmosphere—I don't know, that's... that's big. But then I picture three planets in the same orbit and I think about how I can't even be in a swim lane without another person without mashing into them. How are three planets orbiting in the same line and not plowing into each other; that's crazy talk. So for me, this is almost like a coin flip. So I'm going to go with the psychological angle and think that Steve thought that we might remember that storm-exoplanet story and think that the idea of us weighing an exoplanet is way out of line. So I'm going to say that that one is science and that Steve has made up out of whole cloth the idea of three planets sharing an orbit.

S: OK. Evan?

E: The—my recollection from a few weeks ago[12], Rebecca, like—or months ago, as you did—is that when we were talking about the composition—what was it, the chemical, the atmosphere composition of the exoplanets—they determined a way to... they found a way to determine that and I think that one turned out to be the fiction and of course I guessed wrong. So, you're right; this is the... this is the... this is the curveball one because he's trying to get us to take that bait again, saying "come on, come on". Weighing exoplanets, composition of the atmosphere; uh no. Fool me once, shame on... you? Yes. Fool me twice, shame on me. And therefore it's either the three exoplanets or the tornadoes. Tornadoes may—Super-sized space tornadoes may explain why the sun's atmosphere is much hotter than its surface. Yeah, I gotta problem with the exoplanets sharing the same orbit here, for a lot of the same reasons Jay and Rebecca said. Over so many millions, billions of years, perhaps, that these things would have eventually knocked into each other; caught up—wonder what the tidal forces on these planets are and how the other planets affect—guess it depends on the size of the three planets in orbit. I'm going to agree with Rebecca and Jay; I'll say that one's the fiction.

S: OK. Bob, are they all right or are they all wrong?

B: Well, I might not agree with everyone's logic, but I think I have to agree with their conclusions. The first one, the space tornado, I think that —

R: Damning with faint praise there.

B: (chuckles) Yeah, it's a silly misnomer, "space tornado"—yeah, it would be, if it existed—

R: Starnado

B: Yeah, I like "starnado"; we'll go with that. Maybe a "solarnado"; I like that one too. Yeah, I think it's still a bit of a mystery why the corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun, is so much hotter than the surface, and... and Evan, yeah, the closer you get to the core of a star, yeah, it gets wicked hot; it definitely gets hotter. But there is this huge difference between the outer surface and the corona. I thought they kind of had a handle on that, but this could also seem to be an interesting explanation. I'm sure that's a pretty wicked tornado, pretty big. I would suspect that there'd be some magnetic fields would be involved as well too, so that one kind of makes sense to me. The accurate weighing of the exoplanets, that's a little bit more problematic. I could envision some ways in which they can get information about the atmosphere if it's not transiting in front of the sun. Perhaps the light that did go through the sun somehow got bent towards the Earth, or perhaps there's something weird going on with the atmosphere that would have to emit light or something that they could examine and then kind of figure out what—the characteristics of the atmosphere; that's another possibility. How they could determine the weight of the planet, that's kind of escaping me right now; I'm not sure how they could figure that one out. But still, that makes a lot more sense than number two, Steve. Yeah, there's just no way you're going to have three planets in the same orbit. I mean, there's no way that's going to last. Tidal forces really wouldn't come into effect unless they were really close to each other. But yeah, it's just a chaotic system that could not last and the chance—the idea that we could find it in—a trinary system like that in tiny, tiny window when it could possibly exist at the same time is so damn slim, I'm just not buying that one at all, so that one's gotta be fiction.

S: What are you saying? (laughs)

E: Don't hedge your bets, kid.

S: All right, well, on number one: An international team of scientists have discovered that super-sized space tornadoes may explain why the sun's atmosphere is much hotter than its surface. You guys all buy this one, and this one is... science.

J: Whoa.

S: Good job, guys.

R: Woo-hoo

J: How big is it, Steve?

S: They're super-sized. So, this was mathematicians and astronomers modeling observations of the sun, and what they—and this has been an enduring mystery; I think Bob, you've brought it up before, why is the atmosphere so much hotter than the surface? There must be some energy transfer going on there. Well, they think that this may be the mechanism. These are very large; they would be over a thousand miles long—wide, for example, would spin at speeds up to—more than 6,000 miles per hour, with temperatures of millions of degrees, and they would also have a magnetic field; it's almost like a magnetic tornado that could just pump tons of energy from the sun's surface into the corona, heating it up into this super-hot plasma. So, I don't think this is proven that these, in fact, exist but they do find evidence of this and modeling suggests that they exist, and this could be an explanation for what was a previously unexplained aspect of stars. All right, well, let's go on to item number two: Astronomers have detected what they believe to be the first trinary planetary system—three exoplanets sharing the same orbit. You guys all think this one is fiction, and this one is... the fiction.

(all exclaiming)

S: Good job, everyone. Yeah, it's just... trinary system would be very unstable.

B: What do you think, we're stupid, Steve?

S: But there are trinary star systems; there aren't planets—we have found exoplanets in a system with three stars, but nobody was fooled by that. And, I don't know if anyone saw the recent news item that this is based on —

E: Prometheus?

B: Oh, is it that double planet—that double planetary system —

S: Yes! A binary—so they found a binary planetary system: two planets that are definitely a dual planet—both are planetary sized; you know it's not really reasonable to call one a Moon, although one is like a super-Earth and the other's like a Uranus-sized gas giant. So there's a heavier and a lighter one, but they're definitely both in the planetary range. And they share the same orbit, and they interact with each other in that orbit. So, a very interesting, rare system that we saw. So, interesting that we've seen one; maybe it's not as rare as you think. So let's go on to number three: Astronomers have developed a new method for both accurately weighing exoplanets and detecting the composition of their atmosphere, even those that are non-transiting. You guys all think this one is science, and this one, of course, is science. This was cool; this was a neat item. Any of you guys read about this, by the way, before—

R: I did not.

B: No, how'd they do it?

J: No, I didn't.

S: Yeah, I was hoping—this is pretty extraordinary, actually, so I was hoping to get maybe somebody on that, and sounds like you guys had some doubts, but in the end decided to go with it. Prior to the development of this technique, which was just published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the only way to get an accurate estimate of the weight of an exoplanet were for transiting planets; planets that at some point in their orbit, pass between the Earth and their sun, so that... enables us to do two things: we can then look at the light passing through the atmosphere of that planet and we could learn—through spectroscopy—we could learn some things about the composition of the planet's atmosphere, and we get a good indication of its size. And, because we can—if we know its size, distance and orbital period, we can calculate its weight.

B: Wait, Steve. What about the method of finding a planet that—based on the gravitational—the tug on the star[13]?

S: Exactly. For those planets, planets that are—like this planet that was—that they used the technique to measure, it's non-transiting; so it was detected by its effect on the orbit of its parent star. However, Bob, you can't use that to calculate the weight of the planet, because we never know exactly what the angle of the rotation is relative to the Earth. And that would—right, so it could be...

B: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S: Depending on how its orbit is tilted with respect to the Earth would affect its actual gravitational... you know, what we're seeing is more like two-dimensional, and we have to infer three dimensions and so we don't have precise information about the three-dimensional arrangement. We don't know, is it a bigger planet at one angle or a smaller planet at a different angle; we just have no way of knowing. But, if we had some way of knowing its exact angle, then we'd know exactly how much it weighs based upon its tugging on—the gravitational effects on the parent star. So that's the technique that they developed. So this is an investigation of a planet called Tau Boo B, located in the constellation Boötes.

R: Aww. Tau Boo.

S: The star's only about 50 light-years from the Earth, and is actually naked-eye visible. Planet obviously is not, but the star that we're dealing with is. This is a "hot Jupiter"; it's a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting very close to the star; its orbit is only 3.3 Earth days. It has a surface temperature of about 1,500 degrees Celsius, so it's definitely an inhospitable so-called "hot Jupiter". Well, they used high-resolution spectrograph and the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory in Chile in order to look at the light coming from the system and they were able to, in fact, analyze the changes in the spectra of carbon monoxide in the planet's atmosphere. So that's why the technique accomplished two things: by detecting the carbon monoxide, they knew that there was carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of that planet, and by using the Doppler shift in those spectral lines, they were able to infer the exact angle of its orbit, and then, combined with observations of the gravitational effects on the sun, then they were able to calculate its mass as being 5.6 times the mass of Jupiter. So, but good job, everyone. You guys all got it. The trinary planetary system is a little far-fetched, but you know... you never know what you guys will go for.

R: Well, you failed. That's what's important here.

S: Yep, yep, yep. I've had a couple of good weeks here—it waxes and wanes.

R: Yeah, but those are all forgotten now, in light of your failure.


S: I haven't forgotten.

R: Well, everyone else has.

S: So, all right, I'll remember that the next time you guys all fail.

R: I don't know what you're talking about; we've never actually failed.

J: But until then, I picked that one first. I did all the hard work; thank you.

S: That's true; you blazed the trail, Jay. Everyone just followed you.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:48)[edit]

J: I have a couple of things for you here, Steve.

S: Yeah, you got a quote for me?

J: You like-a Mr. Sparkle[14]? This quote was sent in by a listener with a really cool name. His name is Xen Daems, from Sydney, Australia. X-E-N is his first name; D-A-E-M-S is his last name. If I mispronounced it, I'm sorry; I can't speak Australian very well. The quote is a quote from Professor Stephen Hawking:

I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.

J: Professor Stephen Hawking!

S: Very astute

B: He rocks.

Announcements (1:17:30)[edit]

R: I have an announcement.

J: Do it!

S: Yes?

R: Speaking of Australian listeners, this is very exciting: I'm going to be in Australia again, coming up for the Australian Skeptics National Convention 2012 in Melbourne. It is Friday, November 30th to Sunday December 2nd, and you can find out more by going to the Victorian Skeptics page somewhere on the webs. I'm going to be there with people like The Amazing Randi and Richard Saunders, Rachael Dunlop, Lynne Kelly, Krissy Wilson; tons of really awesome people, so I hope to see many of the awesome people I met in Australia two years ago. I hope you come out to this one as well.

S: Yeah, they invited us down, but—and we really appreciate the invitation, but it just wasn't in the cards.

R: You guys have families.

S: Yeah, got jobs and families and all that kinda crap.

R: I'll send you a postcard from the conference.

S: But keep—keep us in mind in the future; I mean, this is a little bit too close to our last trip to Australia, but I think, you know, maybe in a couple of years would be—you know, the stars will align again and we'll be able to work out the trip. We'd love to go back; definitely would love to go back.

E: Oh yeah. No doubt.

S: But it's a big trip for us, absolutely. We're not free spirits like Rebecca, just pick up and go halfway across the world on a moment's notice.

R: What can I say? I'm a travelin' hippie.

S: Yup. Well, thanks for joining me this week, everyone.

R: Thank you, Steve.

B: You're welcome.

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

Voice-over: 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 You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.


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