SGU Episode 518

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SGU Episode 518
June 13th 2015
Darpa Robot.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 517                      SGU 519

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


AM: Ajia Moon

Quote of the Week

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.

Baruch Spinoza

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Book of Mormon, Ajia Moon's recent life

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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, June 9th, 2015, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein,

E: Good evening, folks.

S: and we have a special guest rogue this week, Ajia Moon! Ajia, welcome back to the Skeptic's Guide.

AM: Hi, thanks!

S: This is your second time on the show as a guest rogue.

AM: It is, yes.

S: So, Ajia, what have you been up to? I hear you're traveling around the globe.

AM: Oh, goodness, I've been up to a lot, actually. I've been to Australia twice, and on my second adventure, I went and did a presentation with Marty Grass in Nimbon. I got to see Dr. Wattick again, who also presented at the Sydney Skeptic's Convention that I went to in December.

S: Ajia, have you ever seen the play, Book of Mormon?

AM: No, I haven't.

S: I saw it last week. Bob, you saw it, right?

E: Oh, lucky!

B: Yeah, a year and a half ago.

J: I didn't know you saw it, Bob!

B: Yes

J: All right, so this is really something I should see, huh?

S: Yeah, it was

B: Oh my god!

S: incredible. Yeah, it was ...

B: Jay, Jay, it's a musical. Do I like musicals? It doesn't matter.

(Jay laughs)

E: Your favorite movie is Greece! What are you talking about?

B: Eh, top ...

S: So this is

J: Matt and Tray Parker.

S: Matt and Tray Parker.

B: Right

S: So the Southpark guys, and you could see the Southpark humor throughout.

B: Oh yeah.

E: Oh, gosh, I hope so.

S: But I was surprised at how awesome the music was!

B: Right?

S: It was really good! I was like, you know, I was expecting it to be funny. I didn't really expect the music to be so awesome.

E: I don't know how much of a hand they have directly in their music productions, but like you said, Steve, their music is very good. In the movie, in the Southpark movie, I thought the music was very good. In fact, they were nominated for an Academy Award.


S: Blame Canada.

J: Yeah, I think they actually do write all the music.

E: That's awesome. They are so talented.

B: Oh my god.

AM: I haven't watched Southpark in years. Oh my goodness. I think I was like, twenty, the last time I watched it.

E: It's as irreverent as ever.

S: It's still good.

AM: Yeah

S: The writing is brilliant. They manage to make fun of all religions, not just the Mormons, but obviously,

E: Good

S: especially the Mormons. The way they do it, of course, is just priceless. It's worth seeing. If you have an opportunity to see it, I definitely would recommend it.

E: Tony award winning musical, by the way.

S: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it was funny, 'cause you know, you're sitting in an audience in New York City. And I suspect that not everyone in that audience was like, a skeptical atheist, you know what I mean? And some parts of the play were just completely irreverent. But I just wonder how the average audience member was reacting to ... Bob, remember the song? Not Hakuna Matata. Not Hakuna Matata, but their version of that.

B: Yeah, yeah, oh man!

AM: Oh no! (Laughs)

E: I can only imagine.

B: Keep in mind, though, I would not necessarily go with young kids to this. Definitely, you want to think twice about that.

J: That sounds awesome.

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (3:11)[edit]

  • Chien Shiug Wu: Called the First Lady of Physics, she made significant contributions to the standard model of physics and showed that the conservation of parity does not always hold.

S: All right, well, we're gonna dive right in. Bob,

B: Yes?

S: Forgotten Superhero of Science for this week. Who is it?

B: This week, the Forgotten Superhero of Science is Chien Shiug Wu. She was a Chinese-American, experimental physicist, who made significant contributions to the Standard Model of physics, and showed that the conservation of parity does not always hold.

E: What?

B: Ever hear of her? What? Wu got her doctorate degree in physics in 1940, and she worked on the Manhattan Project while she was at Columbia University. But her greatest contribution came from conducting what is now called “The Wu” experiment. How awesome is that? To have an experiment named after you.

Two of her coworkers came to her. They had an idea, a very good idea, to prove that the quantum mechanical conception of parity conservation does not always hold, which was a very radical idea at that time. So this means that particles that are essentially mirror images of other particles do not always behave the same way. But in the thinking of the time, the parity of particles should not be relevant to how they interact.

So this was a basic tenet of physics, and it was proved that parity conservation held up for electromagnetism and strong force interactions. So it was assumed that it would also hold under the weak force interactions. And the physics community was shocked – so shocked – when her experiment showed that that was not the case! So shocked, they were, with the discovery, that they received a Nobel Prize for physics, except – and you can probably see this coming – she did not receive one herself, even though her experiment, it was her experiment that elegantly proved it, and made the breakthrough. Although, okay, they came to her with the idea, but she was instrumental and critical to that entire process. I think she should have been, she could have easily argue that she should have got that as well.

But she didn't really need it. This woman was so accomplished, so many firsts. She was the first woman president of The American Physical Society, the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton, the first female recipient of the National Academy of Science's comstock prize, and she was the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her. So that's really cool.

S: And she won the Wolfe Prize in physics, the first one, right?

B: Yes, I think that was on the list too. I didn't include that one. There was just so many, I couldn't even include them all. But still, her Wu experiment, and what came out of that, was an important contribution to particle physics, and development of the standard model of physics. So, remember Chien Shiug Wu; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing weak interaction W-bosons as they relate to particle helicity.

J: Oh! I wish I knew about this last week, because I was just talking about that.

(Bob and Evan laugh)

E: Yeah, that and Housewives of New Jersey.

S: I like how one of her nicknames is “the Chinese Madam Curie,” right?

B: Yes!

S: If you're a female scientist, you have to be compared to Madam Curie.

B: Oh, well, of course.

S: The only female scientist.

E: Name two female scientists ... d'oh! (Steve laughs) right.

News Items[edit]

Implantable Electrodes (6:29)[edit]

S: All right. So, has anyone here ever had anything implanted in their brain?

AM: No.

E: Yes.

J: A bad idea, no.

E: False memories

B: (Laughing) Jay,

E: Yes

S: As far as you know?

J: Why?

S: Never been abducted by aliens, probed?

E: Are you sure?

J: Hey, whoa! Whoa! Steve,

E: Got scanned.

AM: No, (laughs)

S: Okay, although that's getting a little vague there. All right, so a team of researchers from Harvard,

E: Harvard

S: developed an injectable network of electrodes. It's very tiny, and it can curl up, you know, into essentially a small needle. And then you could inject it through the skull of a rat. They're experimenting on rats. And then it unfurls, and lays across the surface of the brain, and sort of works its way down into the little squiggles of the brain.

E: Wow!

S: It's a flexible mesh, network. So this is a technology that they're developing to try to get higher resolution, and more accurate electrical connections to the brain.

B: The living brain!

S: Yeah, well, a living brain, yeah. So, that's, the dead brains aren't very interesting.

B: But we can get high resolution out of them.

S: (Laughs) Yeah, you can get microscopic resolution out of them. But, so if you want to see neurons in action, though, you know, you need to connect to them electrically. We can. What Bob's really talking about is like, you could have neurons in a petri dish, and we could patch clamp them down to very small scales, but we want to see neurons at work in an actual full brain. We want to see how they're working together, their pattern of firing, and how that relates to functionality. So this is an important tool for trying to figure out the connectome, right? Mapping the brain. Evan, how many neurons are in the adult, human brain?

E: Uhhh... lots?

S: That's correct.

(Evan laughs)

S: Can you be more specific?

E: Yes, yes, a shit load.

S: Yes

(Ajia laughs)

S: Does anyone know.

AM: That's a great one, I like that!

B: Like, a hundred million?

S: Eighty-seven billion. A hundred billion was thrown around for a long time,

E: Whoa!

S: but then, studies have shown

B: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, god, that was off by a huge amount.

S: Eighty-seven billion.

E: Wow!

S: And each neuron makes about ten thousand connections. So we're getting

E: Wow!

S: into the order of magnitude

B: (Loud) Quadrillion! A quadrillion!

S: of a quadrillion connections, thank you, Bob.

E: Is that all?

B: I knew that one. A quadrillion?

S: That's a lot. A lot of connections.

E: Let's count them.

B: That is just ...

S: What we'd like to be able to do

B: oh, come on.

S: is to record a lot of single neurons at work in the brain. If you attach electrodes to the scalp, it's so attenuated, you're only getting large clusters of neurons that are firing together. You can put electrodes on the surface of the brain. That gets better. The problem is, the brain is jelly-like, and it's filled with pulsating blood vessels. So it's hard to keep the electrodes exactly in an intimate relationship with one neuron, you know what I mean? So they needed something that is flexible, that will pulsate and move with the brain. So once it sort of gets enmeshed in the brain tissue, it'll, each electrode, if an electrode's connecting to one neuron, it'll stay attached to that neuron. It won't move as the brain pulsates.

B: Well, how does the electrode actually connect to a neuron, though?

S: Well, there's little, tiny nanowires coming out of this mesh. So they will just get close enough to one neuron that it's gonna record the electrical

B: Oh, okay, all right.

J: That is just unbelievable.

B: How deep do they go, Steve?

S: Well, it's still just at the surface of the brain, which is fine, 'cause that's, there's a lot of activity there.

B: But it's limiting, though. It is ultimately limiting

S: Yeah

B: if you have, once this technology is very mature, reliable, and you could coat, say, significant portion of the outer part of the brain, that'd be great. But still, you're not getting interesting structures and neurons deep inside the brain, unless you can somehow create those wires that just fill the brain, just go deep, deep into the brain.

S: Yeah,

B: Right?

S: this technology is not gonna get us where we're recording from the entire brain.

B: Okay

AM: No, they're talking, it's gonna be a hundred years before it matures properly, on all three of the technologies, so yeah, it'll be a while. And by then, there should be much more intricate technology as well, which could get into deeper levels, and make this so much more interesting than what they're proposing in this article.

B: Yes, I agree. Eventually, I think, eventually we'll have a nanite sitting next to every neuron, and then we're talkin' super-high resolution.

S: Well, but all along the way, this is going to be useful and interesting.

B: Yes

S: Not just when it's fully realized, whatever that means. 'Cause wherever we are in fifty to a hundred years, we'll be talking about, like, the next hundred years, and what that means. But in any case, so, this gets us to a higher resolution, again, the flexibility means that we could record from a group of single neurons. I think the first one has sixteen electrodes, but they're working on bigger ones that will have many more electrodes.

And then this will also aid in our ability to move forward in terms of doing brain mapping, using electrical signals. The other thing is though, that you can use these nano wires to stimulate the electrons,

B: Ooh!

S: not just record from them. And then it becomes

B: Wow

S: a therapeudic tool. We're already implanting wires in the brain, in order to treat things like epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. So, I don't know if this would be useful specifically for those conditions, 'cause it's just surface electrodes, but, like, for Parkinson's, you have to get, it's deep brain stimulation that we're working on. So it's gotta get a wire deep, deep down in there. Epilepsy, depends on where the seizures are. So it could be useful.

But in any case, it gives us the ability to stimulate the brain, as well as record from it. So, I think there are three types of technology that this type of technique will help us develop. One is mapping the brain, two is brain-machine interface, right? So this is

B: Oh yeah!

S: people controlling their robotic arms? And the ability to control a computer, or a robot, or an arm, or whatever, prosthetic, depends upon the number of, and the resolution of the electrodes that are interfacing with the brain. So you could put a cap on, and have some control of the arm, but it's not very precise. If you put electrodes on the scalp, you get better control, but then you have electrodes on your brain, and that can irritate the brain. So the other thing about this mesh is that it's not very irritating. They're hoping it could survive for a long period of time on the brain.

And because you can get a lot of electrodes in a small space with single neurons, you get a much higher resolution. So this could lead to much better brain-machine interfaces. And then of course, the third technology is computer modeling the brain, leading to, perhaps, eventually, artificial intelligence, or AI.

I think this is one step. I think these kind of advances are made of a thousand baby steps, right? The press likes breakthroughs, but in reality, most scientific advances are some degree of baby steps.

J: I'm fine with baby steps. I'm good with them.

S: Yeah, it's fine.

J: Yeah, like every

S: You know,

J: little advancement

S: if you think about it

J: is a step closer. I mean, it's not just this advancement here. It's that, you know, hundreds of advancements, or thousands of them are happening at the same time, you know

S: Yeah

J: and new fields of science are being developed. I mean, this is awesome. I'm really excited to hear they're on the way to do this.

S: Yeah, this is significant enough to talk about, I think. It takes us one step closer to all of those things. And it is interesting to think about where we're gonna be in fifty or a hundred years. I mean, there is no theoretical limit to the degree to which we can mesh machine and brain. And that leads to all of these things, you know? This does lead, ultimately, to The Matrix, you know, as one sort of mature tech that flows from this. But, you know, even before that level, even just neuroprosthetics, which I think is probably gonna be one of the earlier, like, really hard applications, just, an amputee being able to actually control a robotic hand, is huge! You know?

Twisted Leg Surgery (14:58)[edit]

AM: Absolutely! That changes your life. I was born without the ability to walk, and getting my legs was great. I went twelve years without walking.

B: Oh, really!

E: Really!

AM: Yeah, I was born with my legs twisted. They were literally pointing backwards. It took them twelve years to do several procedures to eventually get my legs to face forward. And at the end of it, I mean, crap, I could walk! It was so amazing.

B: Oh my god!

AM: I can run around, and have a real life. It was pretty good. And I'm glad I didn't have to go through any prosthetics. They were able to fix it. But that ability to do something that you weren't before is definitely life changing.

S: So let me ask you, Ajia, so you were born that way? So you were twelve years old before you were walking?

AM: Yeah, I had to have a little assistance when I got out of the wheel chair, and I had a body crutch for a bit, just until I started regaining proper muscle control, and I was rehabilitated properly, because, you know, we spent twelve months not moving your legs, your muscles kind of stop functioning. They fall apart. They kind of become flabby, dysfunctional legs.

S: Yeah

AM: They had total rehabilitation to get my muscles going. But eventually, yeah. And now I kind of run around, and do my thing, and it's all good!

S: Did you

E: Oh wow!

S: have any walking at all before then?

AM: With assistance, yeah.

S: With assistance, you would walk with – 'cause actually, the thing that amazes me is not that you got your legs working, 'cause that's just muscles. But it's that you've got

B: Brain mapping

S: anti-gravity, and like, the cerebellum, and all that stuff. 'Cause, if, you know, if you don't develop that at a young age, you may never develop it.

E: Yeah

S: But you must have been doing enough anti-gravity work that it was able to at least develop that part of your brain.

AM: Absolutely. And it wasn't all muscles, because the bones were literally twisted. So eventually they had the twist kind of up in my femurs. So then they kind of went in, and they took all the flesh off the bone from the knee cap to the hip, cut the bone in half, let them untwist, and they plated them, and put thick screws in the plate into the bone, and then kind of butterflied, and sewed it back up, and left me paralyzed for twelve months. And then I was on my way to getting better.

S: Oh, cool!

AM: Yeah, they did it on both sides. It was pretty cool, yeah. I thought it was interesting. Most people'd probably be like, “Ew! That's not fun!” But being young, and kind of into science, I enjoyed the process. The doctors were super cool, and showed me lots of fun stuff. So, I had a good time getting better.

Biolimb (17:10)[edit]

S: All right, Ajia, let me ask you a question: At that age, if they said, “Oh, you have one of three choices. We could do the surgery, and fix your legs, or we can grow you new biological legs from your own tissue, and attach those, or

AM: I would take the new legs.

S: we could give you bionic legs, that would function better, but would be entirely mechanical. But they would be interfaced with your nervous system, so you would control them like your own legs.” What would you choose?

AM: I would choose the new legs, to grow a new pair.

S: That kind of leads us to our next news item, Jay.

B: I thought it might!

AM: Of course, yeah, it will, yeah.

J: Yeah, so this is a story about a girl who did not choose wisely, which legs to pick. She should clearly have picked the robot legs, because they can allow her to jump really high, like up two miles or something.

S: And you make that cool noisy to do it? Like, nu-nu-nu-nu-nu-nu

J: Yeah

E: Oh yes! Six million dollar man!

J: There are 1.5 million amputees in the United States. And world wide, the number is significantly higher than that.

E: Ah yeah.

J: That's a kind of an odd statistic, isn't it? But that means, there's a lot of people out there that, for one reason or another, lost a limb, right? Steve, tell me, as a medical doctor, why would this happen? Why are so many people losing limbs? Or are people born without them? What's the deal?

S: It's everything. I mean, obviously, the war has cost a lot of limbs. You have stuff blowing up on the ground, it tends to take out peoples' legs. Other injuries, infection, older people who have had diabetes for a long time, for example, could get infections or

B: Necrotic tissue

S: Yeah, or vascular insufficiency, requiring amputation of a limb. So some of it's traumatic, some of it is from various diseases. And then sometimes people are born with incompletely formed limbs.

J: And some of it is from people learning how to use light sabers, and they just wing.

S: Yeah, the Light Saber Academy is just an endless supply of ...

J: Flow of (laughs) heavy ...

(Ajia laughs)

B: At least they cauterize.

J: So, yeah, you don't bleed out. You know, you just lie down and scream.

E: They're very clean, yes.

J: So a lot of people

E: Very good

J: Would definitely benefit from advanced technology that can solve this horrible and largely amazingly problematic medical problem. So, the status of replacement limbs is that there are several options. You have artificial limbs that look real, but they either have little or no real utility, right? So you've seen people that have a hand, an arm and hand that look like they're real when you scan your eye across the room, you wouldn't notice. But they can't really do anything with it. It's just there to make the person look whole.

And then they have, we have bionic limb replacements, but these are extraordinarily expensive, and they don't really, they don't look real. I've seen tons of them. I just posted one up on our Facebook page a few days ago, that was really cool. It was a company that is making an artifical hands that are pretty advanced.

B: Yeah, that was cool, Jay.

J: It doesn't look real, it doesn't move like a real hand, it's still, it's not moving with the fluid nature of a real hand yet. It's great, but we're not there yet. And we also have had people that have received actual hand transplants. But unfortunately, this, it's just pretty hard to deal with. You know, you get a foreign body attached to yours, and there's a psychological aspect of it that a lot of people have a problem with. And then there's the amino, immuno suppressant drugs, that are really hard! You know, they're hard to take. You don't feel well when you're on these drugs. And they over all lower your ability to deal with foreign bodies. So it's just a hard thing to do.

So, with those being the options, yes, we need some new technology, we need something to help this effort out. So, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has actually grown what they're calling a bio limb. And this is an actual limb grown from the cells of a rat. So in this case, they took the arm, or a leg, if you will, of a rat. And this is a replacement limb! This is a limb that would be made up of the recipient's own cells, and this means it wouldn't need any of the drugs that would help you keep the limb. And what they're reporting, they're saying that if these efforts go well, the limb would feel, and look, and act natural.

Harold Ott, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who grew the limb, said, “This is the first attempt to make a bio limb, and I'm not aware of any other technology. It will generate a composite tissue of this complexity.” So here's what they did: They call this technique Decell-Recell. And this is the same technique that's used to make internal organs. You guys have heard, like, the kidneys and hearts, lungs, in a lab, esophagus, I think, they made as well.

AM: Yeah, really awesome ones, yeah.

S: Trachea

J: Trachea, yeah. Very, very awesome. Now, the way the technique works is that they take the dead donor organ, right? So let's just use a heart as an example. Now this is made up of a lot of inert protein collagen. When I say “made up of,” the structure of it is actually made up of collagen. And what they do, is they strip away all of the cells, the actual soft, soft tissue cells of the donor. And they leave behind this inner structure of the organ. It's like a lattice work, or

B: A framework.

J: This is a frame work, or scaffolding.

B: Yeah

J: Then what they do, is they'll take specific types of cells that are either the existing cell that they want to grow there, or a cell that turns into the appropriate cell.

B: But Jay, I think it's quickly important to mention that this scaffolding that's left will not have an immune reaction in any recipient, right?

J: Yeah, it's not

B: Right

J: picked up by the recipient's body as a foreign body,

B: Right, that's

J: because

B: key.

J: it's not considered

B: I mean, the frame work, the frame work that's donated from, say, another person, so you could take some one else's heart, and reduce it to the frame work, and then you could seed the cells from the recipient on to it, and then the body, the recipient would not reject it, obviously because of its own cells, but because the frame work itself won't be rejected, 'cause that's kind of immune-agnostic.

J: It's a nerve, it's a nerve.

B: Right

J: So, yeah, since the donor's tissue is not longer really present, there's nothing for the new body to pick up as a foreign object. So Bob's correct. So, of course, guys, growing a limb, this is much more complicated than we're talkin' about than an organ, evan a complicated organ like the heart, because it requires a lot of different kinds of cells. Now, Ott, the guy that developed this, had to hook the limb up to an artificial circulatory system that supplied electrical stimulation and oxygen and nutrients.

He then introduced cells called myoblasts, and these cells grow into muscle tissue. So they put these myoblasts in the places, in the lattice work, where muscles should grow, and guys, keep in mind, they're feeding it nutrition, it's in a bio-reactor. And after a few weeks, muscles and blood vessels had regrown. And look at the picture, take the opportunity to go online and take a look at the pictures of this. And then they skin grafted it, and they had a limb!

Now, of course, let's get real here though. We have to poke some holes into this. There are some fatal flaws in it, where it is right now. They were able to make the limb flex, right? So they were able to make the claw open and close by stimulating the muscles, meaning that the muscles were connected properly to the extremeties. And things seem to be functioning well. And they also attached this limb to the blood flow of a rat, and it works successfully.

But there's a lot left, right? There's a long way to go. The limbs are created. Some people are saying that it's never really gonna be able to solve some of the more difficult challenges. And they were saying that circulation and nervous system growth are incredibly difficult. And they haven't licked these problems yet, not even close. So, when you have other experts in the field saying, “Hey, this is great! Valuable research, please do it, but let's get real. You're -”

S: You're decades, decades away from this working, if it ever does.

J: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

S: Yeah, this is a really complicated way to go, you know. You take a limb, and you completely remove all the cells, and you try to put them all back, from the host cells. So it's not just, they also need to get the bone in there too. They need

B: Yep

S: to get (laughs), they need bone, they need vessels, and then you want the host's nerves to grow its way into the limb.

J: Yep

S: You know, to control it. Which is possible, but it's hard to make that happen appropriately. It's easier when you have like, just a hand, so it doesn't have to go very far. It's hard, the farther the nerves have to go, the harder that is. And then, they're never gonna go exactly where you want them to, but that's not a fatal problem, because you may have to actually retrain your brain to control the limb.

J: Yep

S: That's called an abnormal re-enervation syndrome, when the nerves don't go where they're supposed to go. And it takes time. You have to engage your brain's plasticity. The brain has to essentially learn how to map to the new pattern of nerves. So, that would have to happen. It seems like a really hard way to do it. I wonder if this approach, even this approach, at best, I think it would take decades before we're gonna have human applications for a limb. But ...

J: They said that they would be doing human testing in ten years, but,

S: Yeah

J: whenever I hear five years, or ten years, I heard fifty

S: Testing, yeah, testing in ten years. That means decades.

J: Well, they did. So, Steve, they did already start testing on a primate limb.

S: Yeah, I saw that.

B: So, what method would you think would be better, Steve?

S: I don't know if this is possible, but I – we don't have the technology to do this now, but there's several lines of research. You just wonder, which one's gonna hit first.

B: Right

S: My sense is that we're a lot closer

B: Regrowing?

S: No, I was gonna say, I think we're closest on bionic limbs. I think in ten or twenty years, you're much more likely to have a bionic limb, than an artificial, a regrown limb. I think that growing a limb entirely, rather than populating a scaffold, you know what I mean? Like, growing

B: A lizard's tail!

S: Yeah, like regenerating a limb, really, is what we're talking

AM: Yeah, that seems more plausible than doing it ...

S: Yeah, doesn't it? To regenerate may hit, may work earlier than manufacturing a scaffold like this. But we'll see. We don't know. Obviously, that can happen. Animals can regrow limbs. It's just a matter of having the stem cells in the programming. And we just need to completely figure out how to do that. But, you know, it may be a matter of just, you know, flipping a few genes here and there.

J: Right? Doesn't it seem almost, like, too easy at that point, right? Once we really understand

S: Yeah

J: what genes control these types of things. I would worry about cancer. You know, when you start

S: Yeah

J: telling cells, “Yeah! Start growing like crazy!” You know, like, watch out.

E: For sure.

S: Oh, yeah, that's the big risk.

E: Yes, big mess, yep.

S: That's the trick. That's the limiting fact- that is one of the big limiting factors with stem cell technology. You know, we could just get stem cells to grow out of control, but

B: Yeah

S: to do what we want them to do, without causing cancer, that's tricky.

E: Yeah

B: Jay, Jay, you try to grow a new hand, and it just grows a big, tumor shaped hand.

J: I know,

(Bob laughs)

J: terrible, right?

E: Some monster ...

S: Yeah

J: Well, but over all, though, you know, look: It's these types of efforts that researchers and scientists make, that lead to other discoveries,

S: Oh, yeah!

J: and this is one hell of a feat, guys. I mean, you know, look at

S: Well, it was a forelimb, but, yeah.

(Bob laughs)

E: (Imitating comedy drum) Ba-da bum!

J: But anyway, yeah, take a look at the pictures, and marvel at the fact that people are doing stuff like this.

S: Yeah, marvel at the fact that in fifty years, this is gonna be awesome. But, yeah, it is, though. The advance, it is fascinating to watch the advances in these early stages, as they're being made. But we gotta be realistic about how long it's gonna take.

Tredinnick Pseudoscience (29:46)[edit]

S: All right, we're gonna turn to a little bit of pseudoscience, take a break from hard science for a moment. Evan,

E: (Sighs) Yeah.

S: you're gonna tell us about an MP in Great Britain, David Tredinnick. We've mentioned him before on the show, I believe.

E: In case you don't know, in the merry old land of England, there exists the Parliamentary system of government, and there are individuals who serve in Parliament; and they are called MP's, which stands for Member of Parliament. David Tredinnick, so he believes in some very interesting, and highly unscientific ideas. For example, astrology is real. That's a big one. The physical effects of a full moon can cause certain things, such as internal bleeding – how exactly he came to that conclusion, I don't know.

Oh, and he's a very strong proponent of homeopathy. That is to say, he believes that water has memory, vibrational energies, and can cure all sorts of ailments, as we know. He is also, as a Member of Parliament, he's also on the ... well, several committees; among them, the Health Committee, and the Science and Technology Committee. Oh, and it gets worse. (Chuckles) Now, he's been nominated as the Chairman of the Health Committee.

S: Oh boy.

E: Yeah, he's challenging

S: What a disaster.

E: Ugh, he's challenging existing Chairwoman Dr. Sarah Wallerstein, for this role. And the nominations close on June 10th. A vote is gonna be held on June 17th. In case you don't know, I looked it up online, the Health Committtee, as per their website, is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the policy, administration, and expenditure of the Department of Health, and its associated bodies.

S: I mean, yeah, this is definitely the time for citizens of the UK to write to whomever they need to write to, to protest this. I mean, you can't have a pseudoscientist, essentially, in charge of the Health Committee! I mean, we have the same kind of problems over here, you know, with global warming deniers, for example, being in charge of the Science Committee, but ... why does that happen? Why does it seem like the exact worst person gets to positions of power in decision-making.

B: 'Cause they're trying really

S: Why are cranks, you know, I guess, 'cause they're motivated, but ...

B: Right, they're trying really, really hard.

S: Yeah. It's unfortunate. But it's the political version of that saying that in order for evil to triumph, all that is necessary's for good people to do nothing. And in this situation, for pseudoscience to succeed, all that's necessary is for the average person to just not care enough about it, to do anything about it. This is the shruggy problem, right? The people who don't have an acute awareness of how much harm a strategically placed pseudoscientist could do, like, we had Harken and Hatch in our country, two senators, who did no end of mischief in terms of the Dietary Supplement Health, and Education Act, and the National Center for Complementary, Alternative Medicine. I mean, completely horrible legislation, just because of two, well, in my opinion, one true believer, and one shill for his constituency. But still, just a couple of individuals.

Homeopathy was written into the FDA because of Royal Copeland, one senator who was a homeopath. That's it, homeopathy gets grandfathered in. But speaking of which, I do want to give a quick update on that, just to make sure everyone's aware.

So, recently, the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, decided they were going to review their regulation of homeopathy. Now, they can't change the laws (only Congress can do that), but essentially, the FDA has the power to regulate homeopathic remedies. It just chooses not to. Or it chose not to, like fifty years ago, because it was such a tiny slice of the market, it wasn't worth their resources. So they just, and it was mostly prescribed by homeopaths.

But now, there's a multi-billion dollar over the counter homeopathic industry, and the FDA is like, “Hmm, maybe we should regulate this.”

B: Yeah

S: Like, we are tasked to do by the law. So they, good for them for at least finally waking up to this, and

E: Yeah, Rip van Winkle, but, oh well. At least they were finally woke up.

S: They're taking public testimony. So you can go to the FDA website, and you could send them your recommendations for how you would like them to regulate homeopathy. It doesn't have to be detailed. The homeopaths and true believers and cranks are overflowing the site, saying how wonderful it is, and it cured their everything, and, you know. So, we definitely need scientists and skeptics to be in there to say that, “Please, the FDA, do your job, and do not allow people to be bamboozled by this utter nonsense.”

Also, this can't be a coincidence. The Federal Trade Commission, they also, they regulate the advertising of medicine, right, of lots of things, including medicine. They are having a work shop in September, and public testimony, on how they should be regulating homeopathic advertising.

B: Ooh!

S: So, this is yet another opportunity to tell a government agency that yes, homeopathy is complete and utter unmitigated nonsense. It has no place in a modern society. And if you were doing your job, you would do everything you possibly could to protect the public from this scam. So, yeah, let's go to the FTC site, go to the FDA site, let your voice be heard. Let's try to have the voice of reason be as well represented as possible.

(Commercial at 35:38)

Darpa Robotics Challenge (36:37)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, now back to technology.

B: Hey

S: You're gonna tell us about Darpa's latest challenge.

B: This was Darpa's Robotic Challenge.

J: Whoa!

B: DRC. And it's not just, I didn't really know this. I didn't really pick up on this. But it's not just the latest challenge. It's the culmination of all the challenges that they've had the past few years. And it finally ended this past early June. And the winner, they crowned the winner of the competition, and it was South Korea's Hubo robot, that came out on top, followed by second and third place, which was from the United States. This was the running man robot and the chimp robot.

J: What was the actual feat that they did, Bob? What did these robots look like?

B: Well, they were mostly humanoid, some not very humanoid. But it was eight tasks. And I've got a list. But what I didn't really know about this is how much this challenge was pretty much created because of Fukushima in April 2011. I did not know that this was a direct result.

Now, if you remember, April, 2011, Japan suffered a huge earthquake and tsunami, and it damaged the Fukushima nuclear reactor, and three of its six reactors melted down, nasty stuff. It was actually the only time, except for Chernobyl, that we have ever reached a level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale. So this was one of two of the biggest, nastiest nuclear accidents, where there was a massive release of radiation into the environment.

And while this was happening, workers went into one of the damaged reactors, and they needed to vent hydrogen. When they went in there, they came across this wall of radiation that was nasty stuff. And they had to leave really fast. So they could not manually vent this hydrogen, which led to, later on, massive explosions, which further damaged the reactor, and dumped more radioactive materials into an already contaminated environment.

So obviously, the Japanese emergency teams, and the people that were working on this, they realized that if they just had radiation-resistant robots, they could have prevented this crisis from getting worse, as it was steadily getting. And ironically, they had anticipated this ten years previously. And they created these working prototypes.

But after having them for just a brief period of time, they mothballed them. And they even gave away some of those prototypes because they were deemed unnecessary, that there would not be a scenario where people wouldn't just be able to do much better than the robots could. And it's just so ironic that ...

S: It's like every disaster movie ever.

B: (Laughs) Yeah, right.


S: Right?

J: Of course!

E: Bascially

B: Right.

J: When would we not need a robot to do something dangerous, right? Think about it.

E: Come on!

B: But it's especially ironic though, because Japan is, like, Robotopia. I mean, that is the robot capital of the planet, and they were like, “Oh crap! I wish we had these types of robots.” They did not have them. But not just them, nobody.

S: I thought it was, I thought Zero-One was the robot capital of the world.

B: Hah! Yeah, nice, Steve, nice. Oh god, I love that god damn show.

S: And for the audience, that's the Matrix, the Animatrix.

B: Oh yeah.

S: If you want to know what we're talking about, watch the Animatrix.

B: It's magical, it's so beautiful. Um, okay, but not only Japan. There was not a robot on the planet that could have helped them significantly. This technology was just not there. They, I think, the United States sent several robots over, but all they really could do was to take pictures of the interior. They really couldn't do squat inside there.

E: Wow, right.

B: I mean, not only are we talking radiation, we're talking damage, and debris, and all sorts of stuff. So this

E: No R2D2 to save the day.

B: Yeah, right.

E: That's what he's saying.

S: You have to send a terminator back from the future to do it.

B: Anything would have been better,

(Evan laughs)

B: 'cause we had squat. So this really was a wake up call for the robotics industry. And lots of governments, especially Japan, then of course, realized, “Yeah, we really need autonomous that can aid, not just in disasters like Fukushima, but any number of types of disasters you could think of, from earthquakes, to tornadoes, whatever. Tons of them”

So then, this is kind of where Darpa enters the picture. This is when they decided to begin their Darpa Robotics Challenge. And it was designed to spur innovation, and get roboticists collaborating. And I guess it seems like it was the perfect time, within the industry, for this type of intervention to happen, 'cause Dr. Giles Pratt, who's the program manager of the DRC, he said,

“What we do is, we wait for technology to be almost ready for something big to happen, and then we add a focused effort to catalyze the something. It doesn't mean that we take it all way into a system that's deployed, or to the marketplace. We rely on the commercial sector to do that. But we provide the impetus, the extra push the technology needs to do that.”

And that's a fantastic idea. I really commend them for doing this. And this is one of the great things that the DRChallenge did. So what, the challenge itself, Jay, it happened over three years, those three different stages.

The very first stage was completely virtual. It took place entirely within a computer. And the dozens of teams that entered, the ones that were the best were then kind of sent into the next stage the following year. Or, I think it might have been twelve, yeah, about a year later, I guess. This was the hardware stage, the first hardware stage competition that they did. And then, this past one was the third and final round. So the best of the best, twenty-four international teams, which were the best of all the teams that have done this, were in this latest competition, this two day competition.

And instead of having separate thirty-minute tasks, what they did was, you have one hour to complete eight tasks, one after the other, in this simulation of a disaster at an industrial plant. And the tasks that they had to do were, they had to drive a car, they had to get out of the car, open a door and pass through, close a valve, cut a hole in the wall with a drill (that's a good one). Then they had to either climb over debris, or clear a path. So they had to deal with an uneven surface. Climb a flight of stairs, and they they would give them a surprise task that they did not announce.

And the surprise tasks turned out to be flipping a switch, which sounds easy, but if you didn't anticipate that, it could have been difficult. And the other one was to take a plug in an outlet, and unplug it, and then plug it into another outlet. So I call this the octathalon.

So when this was done, only three robots were able to complete all eight tasks. None of the other robots could finish all of them. Some got six, some got seven, but only three got eight. And of those three, the Huba robot of team Kaste of the Republic of Korea, finished in forty-four minutes. So they got the two million dollar top prize.

And then Running Man of team IHMC Robotics of Pensacola, Florida; they did it in fifty minutes. They got a million. And a half a million went to the CHIMP team of the Tartan Rescue of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; and they did it in fifty-five minutes.

Now, there's a few interesting things about the robots themselves. A lot of them, if you looked at them, you'd say, “What the hell? It's the same damn robot.” Actually, a lot of the robots were actually donated. So a lot of the teams did not have to create from scratch if they did not want to. So, for example,

J: Wait, there are people that donate robots?

B: Boston Dynamic. Ever hear of Boston Dynamic?

J: Yeah, but, like, can they donate me a robot? Can I get one?

B: No

J: These robots don't, come on, seriously.

B: They absolutely would not donate one to you, unless you maybe gave them a multimillion dollar donation. But Boston Dynamic,

E: That's not a … (laughs)

B: they are a premier robotics company on the planet. They've created an amazing contraption. So, the Big Dog series. You know that amazing, like, looks like a headless quadruped that is amazingly adaptive. It could walk around on slippery ice, and recover its balance in a very animal-like way.

S: Yeah, and speaking of that, Bob, it did seem amazing that all of, a lot of the robots were bipeds. I mean, why? It seems like, for this kind of task, you would want a quadruped like Big Dog, but with attachments to manipulate stuff. But why wouldn't your platform be quadrupedal? Why don't you have a biped?

B: I'll tell you why, Steve, because they've thought about this. Of course, these people that live and breathe this stuff, they've thought about it. And the estimation of the people that I've read about said that there is no clear winner on whether to go with humanoid or non-humanoid, because there's pros and cons to both.

So the bottom line for humanoids is that they're very fast, but they're not stable for some of the tasks. But then, conversely,

AM: No, they fall over a lot.

B: Oh my god! Go to Youtube, and type, whatever, “DRC falling robot,” and you will see robot after robot after robot falling down, in the most humorous ways. It's quite hilarious. But conversely, the non-humanoids, they were more stable, but they had problems in areas that were meant for humans. I mean, they're working in an area designed for people.

E: Yeah

B: So if you're not people-shaped,

E: Doorways, yeah.

B: you could have a problem. So it's kind of a toss-up, Steve, and

S: Yeah

B: the interesting thing is that the Hubo robot, I think, had an inspired idea. What they did was, they put wheels on the knees of their robot. So they could, all it has to do is kneel on the ground,

E: Just drop to its knees.

B: Drop to its knees, and then you're very stable with wheels. But if you need to walk up a flight of stairs, or over debris, then it just stands right up, and some people think that was one of the key reasons why it did so well.

Yeah, I was talking to Boston Dynamic. They contributed seven robots to seven teams, and the Koreans actually had two of the Hubo robots. But you just get a blank robot. Not totally blank, but it's up to you to come up with the software and the control systems. And that's the crux of the competition. It was not as much of a hardware competition as you might think, but more of a software and control systems competition.

So, congratulations to Hubo. They kicked ass. Now sadly, the DRC is over, as far as I can tell. That's it.

E: What!

B: The competition has – yes, run its course. This was the plan. You know, three major competitions. They have a winner. And hopefully now, all the ideas that they can take what they've learned, and then hopefully turn it into something that can enter the market, be commercial, enter these nuclear reactors, and it's the final impetus that they need to really hone what they've learned into a real, working robot. And maybe there'll be some other prizes from other companies, but this specific challenge is over.

Who's That Noisy (48:30)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: John Lennon

S: All right, Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.

J: All right, so last week, I played you a sound file. That was what I called the short version. I'm gonna play you the longer version now, for those of you who did not figure out whose voice it was, talking about a UFO last week.

???: (British accent) Over here, up there, I saw a UFO. And it went down the river, turned right at the United Nations, turned left, and then down the river. It wasn't a helicopter, and it wasn't a balloon. And it was so near. It looked sort of round, white in the distance. And silent. Silent, and it looked dark, like black or grey in the middle, and had white lights, just looked like light bulbs, you know? Just going off, on, off, on, blink, blink, blink, roundabout bottom, and on top was a red light.

J: So who was that?

S: So let's see, it's somebody with a Liverpool accent living in New York city.

E: Let's see...

S: Hmm ...

E: United Nations

J: It's on August 23rd, 1974. There was a couple of words, that, that was John Lennon if you hadn't figured it out. There was a couple of words that were so Beatle-like in that recording

S: Yeah

J: I just played, you know what I mean?

E: Yes.

J: A light bulb! It's like, “Oh my god!”

S: (British accent) There was a UFO in the sky with diamonds.


J: There's only four people in the world that talk like that, and he's one of them. So, John Lennon said that he walked out onto the balcony of his New York apartment, and he said he witnessed a UFO, flying saucer, hovering closely, near his window. I don't know. There's quite a bit of stuff on the internet about this, quite a bit of misinformation at best. But there's a lot of stuff about this incident. He truly believes that he saw a UFO. He talked quite a bit about it. And then a lot of people believed him, and tried to prove it, and all that nonsense. But, very interesting.

I got, actually, so many responses to this, where people that knew who it was, I'm just gonna congratulate everybody. Thank you very much, you have all won. That was a little easy. So I decided to try something, you know, I don't know how hard this one is. It's odd, I'll tell you that. And it's also gonna be strangely familiar, but there's more detail to it.

(Music) (Robotic voice) Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you. It would be a stylish marriage. I have not got a carriage. (Fades)

J: Now, you get the idea.

S: It was the HAL 8000.

E: (Singing) So sweet, upon the seat

B: (Laughing) Nice job.

J: Yeah, this is probably something that you could most likely easily Google, but I challenge you to just guess what it is without Googling.

S: Ajia, do you have a guess?

AM: I have no guess whatsoever on that one.

E: You're familiar with the song though?

AM: No! I'm not. That's all new to me, that whole thing is, I'm just, I have no idea.

J: That's awesome!

S: Got the HAL 8000 reference?

B: Yes, very nice.

S: No, Ajia, did you get that reference?

B: Oh

S: Have you ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey?

AM: No

S: Watch it.


AM: Let me write that down then.

S: It's my favorite movie.

J: Steve said, “Oh my god, watch it.” He was saying on the inside was, “OH MY GOD! Who watched it!”

E: “The first person to have never seen this movie! What the hell?”

J: Steve, you are such a cool cucumber. I know you so well, I know exactly what you were saying in your inside voice.

(Jay and Evan laugh)

J: So, write in to me at with your guesses.

Special Report (52:27)[edit]

  • The Victorian era phenomenon of taking pictures of the recently deceased.

S: So, I was poking around the internet recently, and I came across something which I had heard about before, but I decided to do a deep dive on it, really wrap my head around it. Bob, you were a step ahead of me on this one. This is in your Wheel House.

So I was looking at this stupid click bait, which is like, whatever, Ten Pictures You Won't Believe, or something.

E: I hate those.

S: I know, but I can't resist them sometimes.

(Steve and Even laugh)

S: But there was one that caught my eye, like, all right, I want to see what this is. And this is the phenomenon known as Memento Mori. Bob, I know you've heard about this, before.

B: I sure have, yeah. Fascinating topic.

S: Yeah, in Victorian times, so basically, like, 1850 to 1900, it was common practice, or not uncommon at least, for families, when a loved one died, that they would have a professional photographer take a picture of the recently deceased. And that photograph is known as a memento mori, or a memento of death.

There were several reasons for this. This seems like to us, to modern eyes, if you look at some of these pictures, you're like, “Oh my! Why would anybody want that as the way to remember their loved one?” But it was already a common practice to have a painting drawn of a recently deceased loved one. And so, when photography started to become affordable to the average person, it was a simple transition to then take a photograph of them, rather than paint a portrait of them.

What this and many websites do, if you look up memento mori, or pictures of dead people, or whatever, they show a number of pictures, a lot of them, however, are not actually pictures of dead people. So there's a lot of fake memento mori on the internet, photos that are being presented as if they are pictures of the dead,

B: Right

S: but they're not.

B: And with good reason, 'cause they're worth a lot more money than just any old picture.

S: Yeah, that's right. So one of the reasons may be that sellers of Victorian degaratypes, these old photographs, collectors will pay a lot more for a memento mori than for just a picture of a person. And so, often, they'll stretch the truth, just to goose up the price of the picture. I don't know how much of this has caused the mythology around this, but it's definitely contributed to it.

But before we get to that, little bit more background on the memento mori. So the other reason why it did not seem that unusual to take a picture of a dead relative was because, you know how long it took, Ajia, give me a guess. How long did it take, at the very beginning of popular photography, you hire a photographer. How long did he have to expose the picture?

B: So, how long did you have to like, pose for it?

S: Yeah

B: How long were you standing there with the kooky smile?

S: Yeah, the exposure time was, how long?

AM: Oh, I'm gonna guess, maybe ten, no, that's probably wrong. Maybe a minute?

S: Up to thirty minutes.

AM: Wow!

S: Yeah, that jumped up to thirty minutes.

B: Geez!

S: So you couldn't take a picture of a child, you know? They're never gonna sit still for thirty minutes. As the technology progressed, and based upon how good the photographer was, and the camera, the situation, it got down to ten minutes, maybe, or five minutes. But still, multiple minutes. But at its worst, I've read up to thirty minutes.

So that's partly why people are not smiling in those old time photographs, because you can't smile for thirty minutes. They had to remain perfectly still, which means that really, a blank expression on their face was their only option.

B: But Steve, if that's the case, that it was that long, I didn't know it was quite that long. But why wouldn't it be more blurry? Because it would be inevitable, fidgiting and movement, that I think would blur the picture.

S: Yeah, I think, well, there probably are a lot of blurred pictures out there. But I mean,

E: Oh yeah.

S: they just had to be really, really still.

J: That's why they didn't smile, I guess.

S: Yeah, that's why they weren't smiling. They also had something called a photographer stand. So if you were standing in the picture, they would put, literally, a metal frame stand behind you to hold you up,

E: Yeah

S: so that you could stand perfectly still for thirty minutes.

E: I've also seen contraptions where they sort of vice your head into a certain position,

S: Yeah

E: a sort of ring, and it keeps your head from doing any sort of movement.

S: Yeah, and sometimes you see people in what look like awkward poses, because while they were propping themselves up in a way so that they could hold that position for so long.

B: Yeah, and that's what ties into the photographs of dead people.

S: Yes

B: Dead, people would see those support structures to keep people steady, and they'd think, “Oh look! They're propping up a dead body.” Like, no, they're not propping up a dead body, they're keeping a living person somewhat stable and comfortable so they don't move.

S: Yeah, so people knew that memento mori existed as a phenomenon. There are pictures of Victorian dead people. And then they saw these artifacts, like expressionless face, weird position, being propped up, and they go, “Oh! That must have been because that was a dead person.” But that's not true. It was just an artifact of the photography.

One of the things, one of the features, and the photograph that really got me interested in this was, there's a picture

B: Yes

S: of two sisters, one standing, one sitting. And this is, if you look up, like, memento mori on the internet, this picture's very likely to be in the mix. Every one is presenting this as a picture where one of the two girls is dead, but I really don't believe that that's true. I think they're both alive. And what they're saying is that the girl who is standing, you know that she's dead, because her arms are dusky; and that's because the blood is collecting in her arms.

B: Yeah, that's called liver mortis.

S: Liver mortis. But it could also be that she was fricking standing there for thirty minutes, and her arms, in a dependent position. Or it could just be nothing. Could just be whatever, just the lighting of the photograph, or whatever.

B: Right

S: But the quote-unquote “dark hands” is used as alleged evidence that the subject is dead. But it's just not true. Now, if you look at genuine memento mori, in the vast majority of photographs, the person who is dead is obviously dead. There's no question that you are looking at a dead person.

E: They have X's for eyes, and their tongues are hanging out.

S: Well, so one of the things that they sometimes did, was paint eyes on the closed eyelids.

E: Yeah, that'll do it.

S: There's one picture, it's very creepy. It's a five year old boy sitting up in a chair, with eyes painted on his lids.

J: What the hell? Really? Bizarre!

S: And he is dead, in that picture. That is a picture of a dead boy. And it's obvious. It's just obvious. You could just tell that's a dead person, when you look at it. There is another picture of a thirteen or fourteen year old girl laying in the arms of her mother. And again, she's limp, and it's just clear that that's a dead body. You know, that's not a living person.

All the pictures are very sad, when you think about what's happening in that picture they're in. Incredibly sad. There's one picture of a woman who is not in good shape. Bob, I showed this one to you, right?

B: Oh boy, yes.

S: Young, probably had a traumatic death, and it's like, “Wow! Really?” It's hard to get myself in the mind of the husband, or whoever, who was like, “Yes, I want a picture of my mangled wife's corpse, as a memento.” But there it is.

B: The reasoning makes a little sense, if you think about it. 'Cause at that, there were no ubiquitous smart phones, where you could

S: Yeah

B: take a picture of anything and everything. I mean, it was still, even years after the camera was invented, it was still a very expensive proposition, and a very rare occurrence. So, if you had a young child die, as tragic as that was, that also means that you probably never had a photograph of them taken. So this was

S: Right

B: your last chance to do it.

S: No, exactly.

B: That was,

S: Exactly.

B: Yeah

S: Again, it's an act of desperation. It's like, your one opportunity to get a picture of them. And they'll be still for the picture. As the tradition evolved, it became common for the deceased subjects in the photo to be in their coffin. So then, again, it's pretty damn obvious who's dead, because they're in their coffin.

B: Yeah

S: There was no attempt made. So the bottom line is, there was, for the vast majority of photographs, there was no attempt made to conceal the fact that the person was dead. And in fact, later on, they were almost always in a coffin, surrounded by flowers; and it was obvious. There are really just a few photographs that are out there, where the dead person was propped up in a life-like position, you know, where there was some attempt made to make them look as if they were life-like, but never successfully. You know, never to the point where it's gonna fool you.

So if you do see a picture that is labeled as a memento mori, or that there's a Victorian picture of a dead person, and it doesn't look that way, it's probably not real. Yeah, be skeptical, yeah.

B: And Steve, did you say the definition of memento mori, and what it actually means? Did I miss that? It's Latin. It means “Remember that you have to die.” And it was kind of apart from the pictures that we're talking about, it was an attitude,

S: Yeah

B: of people needing to reflect on death. And of course, death back then was much more prevalent than it is today. I mean, sure, you can turn on the TV and see all sorts of crazy stuff. But actual, real death is just not in our faces as much as it was. And people kind of had the attitude that you do need to reflect on how temporary life on the Earth is, and all the Earthly pleasures are, and just to reflect on death. And that's something that we just don't do.

S: Yeah, so that's another factor that I read about that. Us as, in the twenty-first century, we're trying to understand this Victorian practice. Like, they were much more intimate with the concept of death. And they embraced it, and they weren't as afraid of it as we are. And so it was not such a big deal to them, you know, to be taking a picture of their recently deceased child, for example.

(Commercial at 1:03:23)

Science or Fiction (1:04:41)[edit]

(Science or Fiction music)

VO: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, and one fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Ajia, just for you, I have a special theme this week. The theme is new species. So these are news species that have been described in the last year. And there are four of them.

B: Oh boy.

S: So one of these species is fake, the other three are real. All right, here we go: Item #1: Hypsugo dolichodon, or the long-toothed pipistrelle, is a bat with impressive canines that it uses in colonies to kill through exsanguination much larger animals, as large as an ox. Item #2: Cyrtodactylus vilaphongi is a bent-toed gecko whose claim to fame is being the 10,000th reptile in the reptile database. #3: Ampulex dementor is a new species of wasp, inspired by the dementors of Harry Potter, that turns its prey into zombies before consuming them. And item #4: Three new species of princess moths were named in the genus Sirindhornia, easily identifiable as new species because their genitalia sport graspers, spines, tufts, and teeth that create a unique "lock and key" between the male and female. Jay, go first.

J: All right, so this first one about the long tooth bat, so

E: Yes

J: he's basically a dog bat. So if you call this bat, (Evan laughs), you say, “Come here,” the bat will come to you. Now, I don't believe that this bat is as large as an ox, Steve. I think that's kind of crazy.

B: What? Wh-wh-wh-wh-whoa! That's not what he's saying.

S: That's not what I'm saying. But that's okay.

J: Oh

(Bob laughs)

J: Just kidding

B: A bat ... as an ox.

J: Just kidding! The claim here is that the bat, it kills by exsanguination, which I think, that's what, draining the blood?

S: Yes

E: Yay!

J: But how could a bat drain the blood of other animals? Like a large animal. Does it make a horrible wound, and then it bleeds out? I don't know. I believe that this one is science, except for, I'm not so sure that that second sentence in there is real, or that second part is real. So I'll have to put that one on the “maybe” list.

The suro dalyctus dilopon hongee, this is the bent-toed gecko. This is wierd. Okay. And yet again, like, I believe in the bent-toed gecko, but I'm not so sure it's the ten thousandth reptile. Oh my god! The amputelex dementor: All right, this one's cool. Yeah, and I absolutely believe that scientists would name something, new insect, after something cool that they like in pop culture. And I love the dementors. I would do it. I already believe that zombies exist in the natural world. So there you go. I think three is definitely science.

And this last one here, these three new species of princess moths were named something strange, and they have these crazy things, and all sorts of stuff, and teeth where it's not supposed to be. And I absolutely believe that one is science, because nature is insane. That item is insane, so three and four, absolutely.

Going back to one and two: Okay, ummm, I think number one is the fake. I don't think that the long-toothed bat actually exsanguinates large animals.

S: Okay, Evan?

E: Uh, bat with impressive canines that it uses in colonies to kill through exsanguination, and larger animals. Yeah, that's a tough one to take. That's, you're right, that's a lot of blood. Bats, you know, they eat smaller things. They eat insects and things. I don't know that bats that all prey on much larger things. That'd be really out of the ordinary.

Bent-toed gecko, ten thousandth reptile in the data base. I mean, sure, I mean, why not? There's nothing wrong there. I think you're trying to get us on this ampulex dementor, turning its prey into zombies before consuming them. We have seen that before in the insect world. Ants, I believe it was, was one example. So I think that's right. The last one, about the moths, and these awful genetalia features.

(Jay laughs)

E: Teeth. I mean, really?

J: I know, right?

E: The hell

J: What the hell's goin' on here?

E: What kind of evolutionary advantage is that? Well, it's the lock and key. I mean, talk about a lock. So, that's horrifically correct. Jay, I think you hit it. And I think the bat is the fiction.

S: Okay, Bob?

B: I'm gonna start with four, the moths, yeah. I mean, I could see the advantage of the lock and key. It's like, “You're not goin' anywhere.” Yeah, that makes sense. I've seen far crueler and wierder things, so I could totally buy that. The dementor wasp? Sure, that's just too awesome not to be true. It'd better be true. I'll be very disappointed if it's not. And, yeah, makes sense that they would incapacitate a creature before consuming them, so there's not much struggling. So, sure, I could buy that.

The bent-toed gecko, my only problem with that is that, a gecko having a bent toe, sounds a little weird. I mean, 'cause the gecko's, don't they rely on the Vander Wallis force to climb on anything? And if you've got a bent toe, I think that would inhibit climbing around.

J: Bob, I've had

(Cross talk)

J: does that count?

B: That's not the only thing that's bent, Jay.


B: And this first one, the bat one, I'm just so not buyin' that, just so not buyin' that at all. Come on, bats eat either insects or fruit, or little bits of blood. They're not gonna kill large animals. I mean, so, first of all, a vampire bat has like an anesthetic in its saliva, so the animal doesn't even know that it's being sucked on. But this one's got big enough teeth where it's going to exsanguinate something as big as an ox? And then what? Then what? It is gonna drink, to what advantage? It's not gonna eat the flesh, with its carnivorous bat? It's not gonna happen. And you've got colonies of these bats killing big animals. And the big teeth, I mean, I don't know how we could miss that. That would have been discovered a long time ago. That's so impressive.

Maybe they do have big canines, I guess, but even that doesn't make a lot of sense. This is just wrong on so many levels. That's gotta be the fiction.

S: And Ajia! So, Bob, Jay, and Evan are unanimous, they don't believe in my carnivorous bat.

AM : Yeah, and last time I went with the crowd, they were wrong.


E: That's right,

J: What the hell?

E: that's a good point.

AM: Um, the bat thing's that, I don't know, 'cause, I mean, some of them eat insects, but then, you know, some of them also feed on blood from what I understand as well, but I'm just not sure they would go after something necessarily bigger than they are. And as for the gecko, I'm kind of at loss on that one. But the wasp, that's a total, that makes complete sense to me. That kind of goes with their M.O.

The princess moths, I'm not actually very familiar with insects and moths very much. So I'm, it sounds fairly reasonable, what is being suggested. The bat though, the bat. You guys are probably all wrong. (Laughs)

E: (Laughs) Wouldn't be surprised.

AM: I'm gonna go with that's wrong, I guess. That seems kind of strange. Then, I guess …

S: Go with the crowd.

AM: Go with the crowd. (Jay laughs) But as they say,

E: Right

AM: Did we do this before?

S: Okay, well, let's take these in reverse order.

B: Of course.

S: Three new species of princess moths were named in the genus Sirindhornia, easily identifiable as new species because their genitalia sport graspers, spines, tufts, and teeth that create a unique "lock and key" between the male and female. You all think that one is science, because insects have crazy genitals. That one is … science.

B: Yeah, baby!

S: Yes, 'cause as we learned from Bug Girl, insects have crazy sex. And

B: But not good crazy, not good crazy.

S: No, really, really bad crazy. Yeah, the princess moths, very tiny, like five millimeters long, or wings. Very pretty, very colorful. The pictures are gorgeous. But they have this wacky genitalia. And they, so, the thinking is that this genus, and other related genera of these little moths, that they have – and moths in general, by the way – have these crazy genitalia, that work like a lock and key, with the male playing the role of key, and the female the lock. And that the male and the female of the same species, even though they may be hard to tell apart in other ways, like coloring, and size may be very similar, they have absolutely unique, signature, lock and key genitalia.

B: Absolutely unique?

S: Yeah, so that species is the only one that has that particular shape. And so they could absolutely identify it as a member of its species, based upon the formation of its genitalia, because, and the thinking is that this is meant to prevent interbreeding between species.

J: Ah!

S: Right? So that, yeah, a male of one species can only mate with a female of the same species. And that even closely related species in the same genus, it just won't fit. So that one is cool science. Look at the pictures of them, I'll leave you the link, with all the pictures. You'll see how beautiful they are.

Let's go to number three. Ampulex dementor is a new species of wasp, inspired by the dementors of Harry Potter, that turns its prey into zombies before consuming them. You guys think this one is too cool not to be science. And this one is …

J: (Calmly) Yes?

S: science.

J: All right!

B: Yes, demontors! Zombies, what kind of zombies? Fast or slow?

S: Unmoving.

(Bob laughs)

(Evan chuckles)

S: The wasps look creepy. They look like dementors. They really, they're very creepy looking. They're black and orange, and they're long and lanky, and they just, you know. They're wasps, but they do look a little creepy, even for wasps. And they eat cockroaches.

B: Yay!

S: Yep, they inject them with venom that paralyzes them, and turns them into quote-unquote “zombies.” Then they take them back to their lair, and slowly devour them.

E: Is it an evil lair?

S: If you like.

J: What designates a lair, by the way? Does it have to be subterranean?

S: I don't think so. It's just any safe place, that you do your stuff. The bat cave is a lair, you know.

J: I want a lair.

S: Yeah

E: I learned that word playing Dungeons and Dragons, by the way.

S: Sure! Sure, sure. All right, so, so far, so good. Let me show you a picture

J: (Laughs) What are you doing?

E: A picture of the mind.

S: of the long-toothed pipistrelle.

B: Oh!

AM: Oh-h!

E: Oh yeah, there you are!

B: Steve, that reminds me of a vampire bat, dude.

E: The reminds me of a gremlin, from Gremlins.

B: I was picturing a saber-totthed bat.

E: Look at those fangs!

J: That's my ex-mother-in-law.

(Steve laughs)

B: Yeah, but a vampire bat has fangs just like that.

J: (Austrian accent) Look at the fangs!

E: You're insulting the bat, Jay.

J: All right, what happens, Steve?

B: That's awesome! That's awesome! I love that!

S: So, to read that again, the Hypsugo dolichodon, or the long-toothed pipistrelle, is a bat with impressive canines that it uses in colonies to kill through exsanguination much larger animals, as large as an ox. So, you guys all picked up the “in colonies” bit, right? It's not like one bat taking down an ox. This is like, fifty to a hundred bats, using those canines to cause enough wounds that it just, it's bleeding from a hundred wounds, and eventually the animal just …

E: Piranha feeding

S: Yeah

E: frenzy.

J: You totally Jedi mind-tricked that word out of my mind. That's bullshit.

S: You didn't see the “in colonies?” It's there. Evan said it. Evan was very specific when reading it. You thought one bat was taking down an ox, Jay?

J: I don't like you.

(Ajia laughs)

E: I still don't know how.

S: But this one is still the fiction.

AM: (Loudly) Whoooo! (Claps)

E: (Laughs) Everyone's happy!

AM: Yay! Bob rules!

S: Look at those nasty

B: That's awesome

S: canines, that's an ugly-looking bat. I mean, that's pretty

J: That bat looks pretty painful.

B: It's beautiful! It's beautiful!

(Evan and Steve laugh)

E: Bob, in fact, you're getting one of these for Hallowe'en.

S: They think that this bat eats hard-shelled insects. And that's what its canines are for.

E: Crunchy.

S: So I did some

B: Yes

S: probably an insect-eater. But they're not a hundred percent sure, 'cause they just discovered it.

E: Just discovered?

S: Yeah

E: I hope not in the northeastern United States.

S: Nah, these things are all in Asia.

E: Oh, thank goodness! I mean, poor Asians. (Laughs)

S: Which means that Cyrtodactylus vilaphongi is the bent-toed gecko whose claim to fame is being the 10,000th reptile in the reptile database is science. There are lots of bent-toed geckos.

B: Really?

S: A hundred and ninety-two species now.

B: Whoa!

S: More than any other gecko. A hundred ninety-seven.

B: Not any other lizard, you mean.

S: No, no no. More than any – well, there's more species in this genus, there's more bent-toed geckos, a hundred and ninety-seven,

B: Than any other geckos.

S: than any other genus of gecko.

B: Okay

S: The next biggest genus of geckos only has fifteen species in it. And this is the ten thousandth reptile to be in the reptile database. So it dinged over from nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine to ten thousand.

E: Ding! What did it win?

S: It's pretty! It looks like a zebra-skinned. It's black with white stripes. It's a pretty little bugger.

J: So good science or fiction, Steve.

S: Yeah. And some of the other animals that were discovered recently were interesting as well. There's an orchid that's so rare, they don't want to name it, 'cause they don't want people to go collect it, 'cause they think it'll drive it into extinction. There is a walking stick, you gotta see a picture of this guy. The second-longest insect in the world.

J: That's the second longest insect I've ever seen.

B: Yes! I've seen!

S: There's a picture of a guy holding it up. It's like, wider than his shoulders. You know, it's like,

B: Whoa!

S: fifty-four centimeters across. Very, very,

B: Wow!

S: And one more: Crocodile newt, from Yanmar, who is probably going to be instantly on the endangered species list. They were talking about the fact that, the problem is, when you discover a new species, it's not on any endangered list yet, you know?

B: Oh! How ironic!

S: 'Cause the laws don't work that way. And so, sometimes, they go immediately into the pet trade, and in fact, this species, two of the specimens were taken from the pet trade. That's partly how they discovered it. And also, it goes into the traditional Chinese medicine trade.

J: Ah!

E: Ugh, here we go.

S: So, immediately we discover this rare species that's endangered, and we start selling it for medicine and pets, for fake medicine. But they are cute. But they may go extinct quickly for those reasons. All right, well, Ajia, you did a good job.

AM: Thank you.

S: So, does that mean you're one and two, for Science or Fiction?

AM: I've got one out of two. Or, sorry, one out of three.

S: One out of three, yeah. One and two. That's pretty good.

E: Not bad!

S: That's not bad. That's as good as Bob is doing this season, I think.

B: Oh boy.

E: Ba-da bum!


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

S: Evan, hit us with a quote of the week.

E: Here we go:

"Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many."

J: Who can it be?

E: Who could it be? Perhaps the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

S: Very nice.

J: That was my guess.

S: Very nice.

E: Yeah

S: Not exactly what I would call pithy, but

(Bob laughs)

S: nice nonetheless.

E: Nice nonetheless.

S: A little wordy, Baruch.

E: Well, but, you know, for him, actually, not so much.

S: Yeah, (laughs)

E: (Laughs) He was quite the writer, and amazingly, he was able to kind of encapsulate this in just one sentence. And for those of you who don't know, he was a philosopher. He laid the groundwork for eighteenth century enlightenment, and modern Biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self, and arguably the universe.

He came to be considered one of the great rationalists of seventeenth century philosophy. He opposed Descartes' mind-body dualism, Steve.

S: Good for him.

E: Yeah! And he earned some recognition as one of western philosophy's most important thinkers. And, did you know, that, although he's a philosopher by night, by day, he was a lens grinder. And he ground some very good lenses. The quality of his lenses were very much praised by Christian Huygens.

J: Christian Hooligans?

(Steve laughs)

E: Christian Huygens.

S: The astronomer.

E: In fact, Constantine Huygens took one of his lenses and made a forty-two foot telescope lens from one of his dishes. This was ten years after Spinoza had died So he took his lens, and made a really wonderful telescope out of it.

S: Cool! Thank you, Evan.

Announcements (1:23:05)[edit]

S: Ajia, are you going to The Amaz!ng Meeting this year?

AM: I'm not sure yet, to be honest with you. (Low honking sound)

S: Oh boy!

AM: I've been on that

S: That's a good one.

AM: Yeah, I've been on an interesting adventure. I've kind of gone all over the place, like I told you before. I've been to Australia twice, I've been to Korea, I went to Indonesia, and then I'm heading to Amsterdam tomorrow at noon, which is gonna be intersting.

E: Wow!

J: So when's your trip to Vegas, you know?

AM: Exactly! All right, well,

S: Yeah

AM: I will see if I can sneak it in. It's been quite

S: Okay

AM: the busy year.

S: Well, we'll miss you if you're not there this year. It's July 16th to 19th in the Tropicana, Los Vegas. Obviously, we're gonna be there. George Hrab, we are gonna be honoring James Randi, who is capping off (not ending) but capping off, let's say, his amazing career. Quite the line up. They are really cramming in a lot of speakers this year. Take a look at the speaker list. Go to Register. You can still register Friday night for the SGU dinner. It's always a lot of fun. We hope to see a lot of our listeners there. Ajia, let us know if you're gonna be there.

AM: Okay, I will see if I can sneak you in.

S: All righty. And thanks for joining us.

AM: Thank you very much, guys.

J: Yeah, thank you so much.

E: Great talking to you again.

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

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


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