SGU Episode 871

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SGU Episode 871
March 19th 2022
871 spiral symmetry.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 870                      SGU 872

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


MCL: Michelle Ciulla Lipkin,

Executive Director of NAMLE

Quote of the Week

But my experience has taught me two lessons: first, that things are seen plainer after the events have occurred; second, that the most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticized.

Ulysses S. Grant, 18th U.S. president

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, Ides, Smells, Caffeine OD[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. (applause) Today is Tuesday, March 15th, 2022, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Is today the Ides of march is that what?

J: Yes it sure is.

S: We are recording on the Ides of March.

E: So what does that mean like something bad is going to happen?

S: No, it means no absolutely nothing.

J: It does sound a little foreboding though doesn't it Evan?

C: It's the day after pie day, that's a thing.

S: It's a good time to remember that every breath you take has molecules from Caesar's last fart as well.

E: Is that what I'm tasting?

B: I love that could.

J: Could you imagine if your sense of smell was so good that you could detect everything.

S: It would just be overwhelming because you're breathing.

C: Mine's pretty good and my life kind of sucks because of it. I don't wanna say my life sucks, my life's awesome.

E: Nose of a dog, you know nose dog.

S: You can smell a lot of stuff.

C: I smell a lot of stuff and I'm constantly like "oh, what is that?" and people are like "really Cara?".

E: Are you a super-smeller?

C: It's horrible, I can't even, I don't like the way people's refrigerators smelled, it freaks me out. Opening refrigerator doors.

S: Refrigerators, they can smell a little rank.

E: Oh yeah absolutely, you have to clean them.

C: They can, and I like, I notice the first little change. I'm always like oh what is that, what is that.

S: Yeah, I'm fairly sensitive as well. Usually like I will detect rancidity in food way before my wife does. Like no, no, I don't think so. She's like, that's fine.

E: All right, question for you guys does this tie into your super taster sensations?

C: Probably separate but I'm sure they play off of each other.

S: It's distinct. My "supertasting" it's not so super by the way, it sucks, but I just basically taste bitter a lot of stuff. That's it. I just taste a lot more things are bitter to me than people who don't have those.

C: Yeah.

B: That's the lamest superpower.

S: It is.

C: It's horrible. It just makes food not as good.

J: But it means you're less likely to get poisoned that's good.

E: Maybe.

C: Maybe in the past probably.

B: It's a huge concern these days.

C: If we were hunter gatherers maybe.

E: Or more false positives, right? Like mm-hmm poison, no not poison.

S: In modern society it's basically all false positives. Like a lot of things taste like poison to me that are perfectly fine.

C: Kale!

B: I like my superpowers so much better. I could drink a pot of coffee at midnight and go right to bed.

C: Bob! Did you see, did you see the guy OD'd on caffeine and died?

B: What!?

C: Yeah that that news article has been been cycling around─

B: No way.

C: I don't think, I think it was like caffeine tablets or something.

B: Yeah oh yeah man yeah then like two cups of, two cups of caffeine you know per pill. I remember from the old days when I actually thought they helped me. But yeah if you pop like 30 of those, that'll mess you up if you're not a superhuman like me.

C: He drank, actually, so it was drinks. It was a caffeine powder. And he drank the equivalent of 200 cups of coffee.

B: Oh!

S: 200. That will do it.

B: 200!

C: He miscalculated the dosage.

S: Like two orders of magnitude?

C: So sad.

J: That is, what did that person think, like what what was going through their mind. Like I'm drinking 200 cups of coffee.

C: No no no, he didn't realize that, I think he was trying to drink 20 cups. But even that seems a bit intense.

E: But how did you not know upon the first taste that was wrong?

S: See, math illiteracy will kill you.

C: It's sad.

B: There you go.

S: Math will save your life.

J: So Cara, did he have a heart attack?

S: That'd be my guess.

C: I would assume so. I know he had to be, they attempted resuscitation but couldn't.

S: You can get a heart attack due to spasm of the muscle.

C: That's probably what happens.

S: Spasm of the artery, you get like arterial vasospasm in the heart. I had a patient that that happened to them because they were taking a supplement that they weren't aware had a caffeine analog in it. And they took a massive dose of this stimulant. And they had a heart attack you know. They went to the emergency room and they were fine and everything, but it was again, they have no atherosclerosis, it wasn't a pardoning of the artery or a clot. It was just the vessel went into vasospasm.

C: Yeah, that's what it sounds like. He, his chest, he had really immediate chest pain and tachycardia. And then it says he sadly started foaming at the mouth. She called the ambulance. But get this, the coroner found that his, the caffeine level in his blood was 392 mg/L. And the typical level after a cup of coffee is 2-4 mg/L.

B: Oh!

S: Hundred times.

E: So 100 times, 100x.

B: Killed by coffee man.

E: Death by coffee.

C: Careful with that dosage.

J: Bob, at least he died doing something that he loves, you know. (Bob laughs)

C: Is that how you want to go Bob?

S: Small comfort.

J: Death by coffee?

B: I want to go when I'm bored with life after many millennia. Then, then I'll just pilot a ship into the sun.

J: Bob doesn't want to die until he's universe-weary. (Cara laughs)

B: Yeah. But even better, even better. Try that, just fly at ultra relativistic speeds for so far and so long, that you basically see that the end of the universe in trillions of years.

E: Die of boredom?

B: I'm working on that, I'm working on that.

Announcements: Arizona Live Shows, other shows (5:42)[edit]

S: So guys, July 15th and 16th, July 15th and 16th of this year, 2022. The SGU is coming to Arizona.

E: We are going to raise Arizona.

S: Yep. We have booked two extravaganzas.

J: Phoenix and Tucson.

S: Phoenix and Tucson. And we'll be building that out with some private shows as well. So the details to follow. But that is confirmed, those dates are confirmed.

B: Wait a second, July 15th and 16th?

S: Yeah.

J: Yeah.

B: That's too close to my birthday, man. You know, I'm not going to be recovered from my birthday.

S: Yeah, you'll be fine.

E: We'll give you some coffee. (Cara laughs)

S: It's halfway between your birthday and my birthday Bob, so we're good. And, since we're talking about our extravaganzas. This is I think the last show to come out, for all night, yeah whatever, the next show will be coming out, yeah during, it'll be coming out on Saturday. This is the last show to come out prior to our next extravaganza weekend.

C: New York City!

S: New York City on March 26th. Boston on March 27th. For the extravaganzas. The private show, Friday March 25th and, they're both on on Sunday.

C: Also yeah March 27th.

S: And Sunday, March 27th in Boston. So, still time to get tickets.

J: Steve, where can they go to get more information about these? These shows?

S: Now Jay, you're supposed to be with that information. (Cara laughs)

J: Oh that's right, I just asked myself. You can go to the It has all the details.

C: That's convenient.

J: And we probably will not be doing New York or Boston at least, at the very least, two to three years before we'll be back. So this is your chance, if you live in those areas, please come see us.

E: We want to see you.

Special Segment: DST to be permanent in the USA (7:22)[edit]

S: Did you guys hear, that the US senate passed a bill to make daylight savings time permanent?

C: Yes.

B: No way.

S: We actually did something that makes sense.

E: Wow.

C: Yeah we're not gonna spring forward again, I mean fall back. We're not going to fall back next time.

S: It has to pass the house. Now it's, now it's going to.

B: It'll never happen.

C: I don't know.

J: Steve, Steve, are they proposing that we go forward an hour every year? Is that what they're saying?

S: I mean yes, never have to change the the time again, which would be nice.

C: Yeah Jay, they're just gonna make it like the north pole. (laughter)

S: Where there's no time. Time is suspended.

E: Pole time.

C: Pole time. (laughs) Bob like I know that you're, you're skeptical. Which is fair.

B: No I'm not, oh wait, about what.

C: You know, that this will pass.

B: Yes, I am.

C: But the truth is, I think this is universally hated. I think this is a very non-partisan.

B: Al the more reason why they won't make it happen. (Cara laughs)

E: Wow.

S: I think now that it's gone this far, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't just pass.

J: I mean they've tried to pass it a couple of times.

B: It won't because it makes sense.

C: It won't because it makes sense? (laughter)

S: Bob the nihilist.

J: I mean think about how f'd up that is guys, think about it. Something like very reasonable has been submitted to the senate, for them to pass, you know. It's like, it's a no-brainer at this point, right? Most most logical people agree.

C: Yeah what's the argument against it?

J: But Cara we are sitting here legitimately not sure if it's going to pass. You know what I mean? That's how f'd up it is right now.

E: It's the lobby who make the dials on clocks you know, that turn. That's a very strong lobby in Washington. And they have an interest in this.

S: I know it's like we're so programmed not to think of something like just a good rational law passing congress. Like this, it's always got to be political or screwed up in some way. Or some really crazy trade-off.

B: Somebody's going to throw pork into this.

S: Yeah just a common sense thing, can we just make it permanent and get rid of the whole changing time thing?

C: Not without a without, a not about an infusion of cash. A defense contract here in my hometown.

E: Let's tack on a rider for 15 billion dollars for whatever.

S: Let's make digital clocks illegal. (laughter) Well that'll be nice. If that happens. Maybe that'll happen in time for our visit to Arizona.

C: Doesn't Arizona not do it?

E: But Arizona doesn't recognize it, yeah. Arizona leading the way.

C: So we will be less confused when we're in Arizona. (laughter)

E: Or more so.

J: I want to prepare you guys. I don't know if you guys have been to Arizona in the middle of the summer. But. Oh. My. God. You could you, could cook eggs on your dashboard. In your car.

C: I grew up in Texas Jay.

J: Yeah you know it.

C: I know what's up.

J: But it is fantastically hot in the summer there.

S: Yeah but they have air conditioning so.

C: But it's also kind of cold at night which is cool.

J: Yeah actually, let's go to the desert guys.

C: Yeah.

E: Oh we're gonna go to the desert.

C: It is kind of the desert. Oh, we should go to Lowell Observatory, oh we should go to Meteor Crater while we're there.

B: No way.

S: Definitely.

B: No way. How far away will it be?

S: Three hours. From Phoenix.

C: Three hours from Phoenix? Okay.

E: We can make. I think we can make that work.

C: Figure it out.

E: Maybe some listeners want to join us on a trip too.

C: Anybody got a helicopter?

E: With air conditioning.

B: That'd be so cool.

J: I mean honestly guys we wouldn't be able to do that. That's half a day.

C: Shhh, shhh. (laughter)

S: It's four hours and 36 minutes from Tucson. Phoenix is closer. Yeah three hours from Phoenix is as close as we're gonna get.

C: Is it halfway between Phoenix and Tucson?

S: No. How could it be? (Cara laughs) Tucson's farther away.

C: I don't know.

S: Tucson's farther south. You go north to phoenix and then further north to meteor crater.

C: It is beautiful though, I've done the a hike around the entire rim and it's really.

B: No way.

C: Yeah.

S: We got gotta, we gotta schedule it around a day trip to meteor creator. Why don't we do one of our live shows from meteor crater?

E: Absolutely.

B: Done.

J: So Steve you want me to book a show, where I have to get hundreds of chairs.

S: I want Cara to do it.

C: (laughs) We'll go into the meteor and we'll have really loud microphones and everybody can stand on the outside.

B: Oh man.

E: We'll just be on the shady side of it.

B: I want to do this, meee.

C: Meee. It is a cool hike for sure.

S: It's funny to be so close and yet so far. (Evan laughs)

C: I know.

S: Something that I've always wanted to see. I got to check that box, I want to see the media creator.

B: Let's just not sleep one night, we'll just not sleep.

S: We'll have to figure out how we're gonna make that happen.

C: Hear it's beautiful in the middle of the night. (laughter)

B: We could use our...

E: Just walk along, lalala-aaaaa. (Cara laughs)

S: All right let's move on to some news items.

News Items[edit]

Why Is Life Symmetrical (12:21)[edit]

S: Let me ask you guys a question.

B: No! Yes.

S: Why are living things, why is life symmetrical?

E: Gravity.

S: Where does symmetry in living things come from? That's an, it's an interesting question and of course.

E: Gravity, if you didn't have symmetry you keep falling over to one side.

B: Is it locomotion and beauty?

E: No it's gravity.

C: Do you mean, sorry, when you say "where does it come from", you're not talking about developmentally but you're talking about evolutionarily?

S: Yeah, evolutionary, yeah. Why, why are we symmetrical?

C: Not, not how are we symmetrical.

E: It must be the most efficient design. Evolutionary speaking.

C: It's conserved.

S: You guys are hitting on a lot of things that are definitely related. And this is, this is an active area of research. And the big question is, how much of it is adaptive, and how much of it is not adaptive, right? That's one one way to look at it. So what I mean, what I mean by this is that you know like vertebrates tend to be bilaterally symmetrical, right? Our right side looks like our left side. We talked last week, Cara about radial symmetry. Although you were incorrect in that cephalopods do not have radial symmetry.

C: I know, I thought they did, I didn't realize they had the two fancy arms.

S: Yeah but a good example of radial symmetry would be a sea star, right? They have like the five arms. But why is that? Why does that happen? So let's talk about a little bit about the adaptive reasons. And this is a little bit of you know, adaptationist, hand waving. But, there's, it's easy to think of reasons why certain structures would need to be symmetrical. Think of a bird's wings, right? How would they function if they were not symmetrical? They were not symmetrically placed on the bird, like what if one was a lot far farther forward than the other, or what if one wing was bigger, or what if they had different aerodynamics. Or whatever. Flying would obviously be much more difficult if the birds didn't have symmetrical wings. And same thing with, you know, their body being streamlined or the hydrodynamics of fish. Or Evan you brought up walking. If we were not basically symmetrical, you know, would that mean that we would tend to fall over one side or the other?

E: We would.

S: Not necessarily. We are not symmetrical front to back, and that's not a problem.

C: We're also not perfectly symmetrical.

S: Not, of course not perfectly symmetrical. But there's, so but I think we could say that physics plays a role. Forces having to balance. And one way to balance forces is with symmetry. So I think that, that's sure, to some extent, there's probably adaptive reasons for some symmetry in morphology. And you know again the obvious I think reason in some cases being the you know balancing forces. Like lift from wings or galloping or whatever, you know, it's a lot easier if you're symmetrical. But that probably doesn't explain all of symmetry in nature. And also it's important to note that the symmetry exists at every level. You know all the way down to proteins. Like it's not just at the macroscopic level or the overall organism. And so you know again we the, it's a sort of an open question is, why is there so much symmetry in nature. It seems to be more, than what you could explain with purely adaptive explanations. So is there any non-adaptive reason? Just we're more likely to see symmetry than than not symmetry. So if you think about it this way, if you look at all the possible designs out there in nature, there are many more that are asymmetrical that are symmetrical. And so clearly there's some reason why, you know, the you know, at least some level of symmetry, it predominates over asymmetrical forms even though there are many more options in the asymmetrical space than in the symmetrical space.

C: And even in asymmetry you see balance a lot, if that makes sense.

S: Well yeah you could be, you could be asymmetrical with balance, sure.

C: Yeah like spirals and things like that in nature. That aren't actually symmetrical, like they're not they don't have that chirality but they, they are balanced. If that makes sense.

S: Yes, you could, yes, exactly. Our organs are kind of asymmetrical but balances. We have symmetrical organs and asymmetrical organs. And there are developmental reasons for that as well. All right so there's a new study which is trying to look at possible non-adaptive reasons for the predominance of symmetry at all levels of living structures, right? And this is something I've thought about before, like even before I read this article when, I just sort of read the headline. I'm like, yeah my my gut instinct answer's, it probably has something to do with math, right? I mean doesn't it? Intuitively it's like yeah there's got to be something. And also on the background is, you know, my understanding that, and this is important to this, is DNA is not a blueprint, right? And I know we've discussed this before on the show. Like your DNA molecule that makes up the design of you is not a blueprint of you, it doesn't have all the details of where all the cells are in your body. It's more like a recipe or a formula, right? Or an algorithm. Probably the best word. And, it's a set of rules. And when you follow those rules the organization of your body unfolds. Another example of that kind of idea is a bee's nest. Like the honeycomb pattern of a bee's nest is, there's no blueprint for that. The bees don't know what the shape of their honeycomb nest is. They're just following a really simple algorithm. And doing it over and over again.

B: Right, it's an emerging property.

S: And then they shape the symmetry and everything emerges from that. The authors of the article I'm about to discuss use like, if you're explaining to somebody, how to lay tile. Like different colored tile on a floor. You're not going to tell them where every single tile goes, right? You're not going to label the tiles with a number and go "this is c28 and this goes exactly here". No, you just say "you just go white, black, white, black and just keep repeating that" and then the pattern unfolds.

E: Yeah, simple sequence.

B: Much more efficient, right? Much less information.

S: Much more, exactly. It's very information efficient. If you had to tell them where every single tile went, that would take a lot of information. But if you could give them a simple rule or two, and then they follow that rule, and then the pattern unfolds. So what, then that's obviously much more efficient. Now if you do that, if you follow a very simple rule repetitively, that tends to lead to symmetry. Think about it again, this gets to now information theory, which I know again we've talked about on the show but very very quickly. Information theory deals with, you know, the mathematics of information. What is information, how do we define it, how do we quantify it, how do we think about it. And just one type of information that, there's actually different types of information. You know so-called Shannon information. It has to do with how compressible information is. This may seem a little counter-intuitive at first when you think about it. The least compressible information is a completely random sequence. So if you had a completely random sequence of a hundred numbers, nothing less than those hundred numbers would fully describe that sequence. There'd be no way for you to describe that exact sequence with anything less. But if you, at the other end of the spectrum, if there was a hundred ones, you could just say a hundred ones, right? You can compress it all the way down to just saying 100 ones.

B: Right, even if it was a million Yottabytes of a file.

E: Oh Bob.

B: You could, you could compress that into next to nothing.

S: One times a million whatever. Right so, the very very simple pattern, highly compressible. Completely random, not compressible at all. So you know, how compressible information is one way to think about it. So if you're following a simple set of rules, that information's highly compressible. It's highly efficient. And so DNA for example can code for a lot of complexity if it's following simple algorithms that then unfold into that complexity. And, like our brain, like our brain follow when, the DNA doesn't code for all of the details like where every neuron goes. It's just following simple rules over and over and over again. You know like, here's a column, now make a billion of them, you know. So that's, that's basically what it's doing.

B: So how does compressibility manifest itself as symmetry then?

S: Yeah so that's because the simple algorithms, when repeated over and over, spontaneously produce symmetry. And asymmetry takes more information to encode than the same way that a random─

B: That's, that's what I was looking for, yes.

S: ─sequence of numbers takes more information to code. Now there's a subset of information theory called, one is called algorithmic information theory where it's looking at the amount of information contained in a in an algorithm, right? In a set of rules. And so that theory tells you basically that symmetry would spontaneously emerge from simple algorithms. The more simple the algorithm, the more likely that is to happen. More simple algorithms are more information efficient. And life is all about efficiency, right? If you could do something with less then that is going to be, that is going to be favored. And that will predominate. But there's another, we don't take that for granted, there's another concept here, that relates to that, and that is the, that is a concept called the arrival of the frequent, the arrival of the frequent. That was, that term was coined in a 2014 paper which elaborated on the math. Basically, if you look at a system, simpler algorithms are easier and therefore would occur more frequently by chance. And therefore by random chance alone, simpler algorithms should predominate over more complex algorithms. And therefore symmetry should, more symmetry should predominate because simple algorithms equal symmetry. Asymmetry equals more complicated algorithms but more complicated algorithms are harder to occur spontaneously. So the authors appealed to the old monkeys and typewriters analogy to explain that. So imagine, I've never liked this analogy, but imagine if you have, you know an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters eventually would squeeze out the full works of William Shakespeare. Yes, fine. But, let's apply that now to evolution. It's not infinite, it's just a lot of monkeys. On a lot of typewriters. But the thing is it's not a good, it's not a good analogy to evolution because you have a predetermined output, right? The works of Shakespeare. And it's also a predetermined, and also very very large you know output. That's not how evolution works. If rather, you said we're going to, we're going to, the monkeys are going to be typing randomly. And we have a set of rules by which what they're typing is converted into some formula for building stuff. And then we're going to look at all the stuff that the monkeys are typing at random, for patterns, that could be formulas for building stuff. The probability that you're going to get a simple formula out of that random typing of monkeys is a lot greater than a really long complicated formula. And so there's just going to be a lot more simple formulas than long complicated formulas. That's the arrival of the frequent. And so, and then in an evolutionary setting the probability of a simple algorithm becoming evolutionarily fixed is a lot greater than a complicated one. Even if a complicated one may occasionally emerge, the chance of it becoming established within an evolutionary line is really low. It's not zero, it will happen, it's just really low. So, if you combine that mathematical concept,the arrival of the frequent, if you combine that with algorithmic information theory, and you you get to this notion that in evolution simple algorithms should predominate. And simple algorithms lead to symmetry. And therefore symmetry should predominate in evolution. Even though it's a small subset of all possible morphology, it still is likely to be fixed in an evolutionary sense, right? So all that makes sense?

B: Right so any aliens we come across will likely to be very symmetrical as well then?

E: Yeah.

S: That's, that would be one thing you can infer from this, yes, that it wouldn't be limited to earth life. If it is, if we find that it is limited to earth life then that tells us that it was just historically contingent. It was evolutionarily contingent. It just so happens that our early ancestors like back in the Cambrian explosion happened to settle on some symmetrical body plans and they predominated by chance alone. And in another, on another planet, asymmetrical body plans predominated. So that would be a way to test all of this.

B: But we need a lot of data points though.

S: We can't do that until you know we have other.

B: Or maybe not necessarily a lot.

C: And with n more than one.

S: But we do have an n of more than one in that we have, you know there there are 30 different─

B: Independent.

S: ─something like that phyla are pretty independent. I mean in terms of multi-cellular life, they've pretty much independently evolved multicellular life with their own body plans not really related to anything else. Two other completely distinct files. I think there's 16 extant phylums and then almost as many extinct phylums. They all tend to have some symmetry.

B: Phylums?

S: Yeah, phyla. And they all tend to have some kind of symmetry whether it's bilateral symmetry or whatever. And so you know if you consider that 30 data points, symmetry predominates.

B: Yeah but but they, but they evolved from single cell organisms, so there's no connection then between the symmetry of the single cell organism into multicellularity, so is that a valid?

S: That's a good question, I've not encountered any even discussion or speculation about that.

B: It sounds reasonable but I don't know.

S: Yeah I mean, I don't know.

B: It's not necessarily an appropriate extrapolation.

S: Yeah or by the other, the other answer is maybe all phyla do have a common ancestor. If you go back to the precambrian─

B: Oh yeah.

S: ─the ediacaran fauna. And maybe like the very very first multicellular creatures had some baked in symmetry that continued through everything─

C: That just bottlenecked everything else.

S: ─yeah so that's also possible, that's what, that's where other planets with other evolutionary examples would come in. But I think, given the all the information that we have, you know it's probably not a coincidence that there's so much symmetry in life. And you know the fact that there are adaptive and non-adaptive just like basically purely mathematical reasons for it supports that. I don't think this you know, I think this is sort of an independent line of evidence. It sort of not only explains, it supports the fact that we should predict symmetry, should be common not just that it happens to be common in life on Earth.

B: What do you think the balance is between life that is symmetrical because it's easier and more common and more prevalent, and life that is symmetrical because it's it's more efficient? You know, what's the balance between those two? Because you seem, you seem to be stressing more now the whole idea that some symmetry is just because it's so much more likely to happen, than something that's asymmetrical.

S: I mean, I think those two things are related, I think those two things are related, right? It's more prevalent because it is more efficient. So it's not only more likely, it's also to occur it's also more likely to survive and predominate. Because it does, it does work efficiently. And also I think it could also be related to adaption because you know the sim, if the symmetry were there initially because of just probability. Then we would evolve adaptations that take advantage of that symmetry. And if, and if for some reason math favored asymmetrical morphologies, then adaption would find asymmetrical solutions to problems. But we found symmetry dependent solutions because we had the symmetry to begin with. So it's hard to separate them as well.

C: Yeah.

J: If life were to happen all over again, do you think that this would be there as well, right? Like would, would this symmetry, or leaning towards symmetry be there? Is it like cooked into the reality?

S: Yeah, that's what we're saying, right ? So that's, that's the same thing as saying "would life on another planet have the symmetry?". But that, this article argues for yes, that this is math. This is just what we would expect, what we would predict based on probability alone, without being contingent on a particular evolutionary history. Or a particular particular adaptive strategy. It's just going to spontaneously emerge because of math.

B: So those damn asymmetrical aliens in science fiction are bull crap.

S: Maybe the asymmetry is superficial, maybe it's you know.

B: Maybe they were engineered that way?

E: [inaudible] had this massive wobble so they had to adjust you know, asymmetrical.

C: Everyone's, like their left leg is just shorter across the globe, yeah.

S: Right right right.

Evolution of Language (29:45)[edit]

S: All right Cara, you have an evolutionary item as well. You're going to talk about the evolution, a little bit one aspect of the evolution of language,.

C: Yeah and I think that in some ways that that thing that you were just grappling with, about sort of the chicken versus the egg. Of the pressures versus the capabilities, I think it's sort of echoed and mirrored in this story. It's a really interesting one. So there has been a long debate about the evolutionary origins of language. What came first? Was it vocalization or was it manual or gestural language? Because very often we think in our, I think in the kind of popular literature, or maybe not the popular literature but the popular media, we always envision cave people grunting a lot, right? Like grh, grh.

J: Yeah of course.

C: We don't, we don't often see them portrayed as like pantomiming to one another.

B: Yeah.

E: Right.

C: Yet, there's a lot of good evidence to support the notion that that might have been a little bit more effective. And so there's an interesting study that was published recently in the Royal Society Proceedings B, so that's biology. Where these researchers in Western Australia, they said okay, I want to do something experimental that will not in any way prove whether language evolved gesturally or, in terms of vocalizations. But may, maybe give us some insight. And so I think the big caveat here, and they talk about it in the in the study, is that there's no way to do a modern experiment without already being exposed to modern language. So we have to just take that with a grain of salt, all of us are not naive to language, right? We already speak and so what they did, is they took two groups and they said, I'm curious if if we compare two groups cross culturally, and we have some of them communicate word prompts using only vocalizations. And we have others communicate word prompts using only gestures. Who will be more effective in communicating the meaning of these words? So getting a group of undergrads basically, who are sitting there watching or listening, to guess what words they're, they're actually representing. Now I struggled with this from the beginning, because I cannot imagine, and maybe this is my own bias, communicating any words through vocalizations. Except maybe the word sing. Do you guys like, do you have that same bias with me? Like when you actually think about the experimental design, how would you, if they asked you, you know, communicate the word table using only vocalizations but not words, not language.

B: Oh jeez.

J: So give me an example.

C: That's what I'm saying. (laughter)

J: Like, like you want, like don't use words but just use sounds?

C: Yes.

E: Like fall would be uuuuuu.

C: Yeah like onomatopoeia kind of makes sense.

B: Onomatopoeia.

J: What would a table be?

C: I know.

J: That's crazy.

C: So, I'm kind of not surprised when the outcome was that the, "the producers" as they call them, were about twice as successful in using gestures to communicate meaning than they were in using vocalization─

E: Sure.

C: ─non-language vocalization. That actually doesn't really surprise me. But the kicker and the really interesting part of the study was a two-parter. In the first part is that they used individuals from Australia and individuals from Vanuatu which is a Pacific island nation about a thousand miles from Australia. And so these are individuals who have very different cultures. So Australia very kind of western democratic, you know, uh middle to high income culture. And the Vanuatu culture is more agrarian. And you know very different cultural exposures and cultural norms. And so they gave them both the list of words and had them communicate. And they found that both groups were better at communicating using gesture than non-linguistic vocalization. They compared Australian to Australian, Vanuatu to Vanuatu and then Australian to Vanuatu pairs. And they found that gestured signals were more similar, both within cultures and across cultures. But verbal signals didn't necessarily follow that, that organization. So basically the, the one of the examples that they used was this idea of a chain, so in many of the Australian individuals would show a chain like they were hauling something. Whereas the the knee Vanuatu would show the chain like they were dropping it over the side of a boat, like dropping anchor. And so there were some cultural differences, in how they were communicating that, but they still found that across group and within group, the pantomime was significantly more successful a strategy than the the non-verbal vocalizations. But then they said okay, let's take this up a notch. Now I want to know what about people who don't rely on vision to navigate the world, right? So we're going to look at sighted people and individuals who are visually impaired. And they had some pretty intense cut offs, like some of the some of the individuals had no light perception, some of them did have light perception but were considered to have less than 10 percent visual acuity. So for all intents and purposes, you know, we can put them in the visual impairment/blindness category. And they asked them to do the same thing. And they found that even in this group individuals pantomimed more effectively, than vocalized. And so even though many of these people who were congenitally blind or they had gone blind I think within the first year or two of life, they still were utilizing similar pantomimes to communicate different nouns and verbs. And so the researchers kind of made the, in their discussion, the comment that this probably has a lot more to do with our own body map. It has to do more with the concept of embodied cognition, which we've talked about a lot on the show, right? This idea that our proprioception, where we are in space was so fundamental to language development, that even individuals who don't see other individuals pantomiming to them or gesturing to them have an innate ability to gesture certain types of words and communicate their meaning. And so for that reason they also believed that perhaps it is the case that gestural language predated vocalized language. Now that said, at the very end they also say, none of this is to say that these things didn't like co-develop. There's no reason to believe that we only used our hands in our bodies or we only used grunts. It's very likely that we use both because they help each other. Actually weirdly studies have shown that pantomimes can help verbalization where there's a communication breakdown. But but verbalizations don't often help pantomimes when there's a communication breakdown. So that's kind of interesting, that was in the in the introduction, so based on their literature review. So they think it's very likely that both probably evolve together. And when grappling with the how or the why of it all, it's interesting because we often think, okay, well speech is just more efficient, right? We're just talking about this idea of kind of evolution towards efficiency. Well development of a really important cultural phenomenon, really kind of fundamental to the human experience, like language, of course we often think okay well that increases efficiency. But one of the researchers mentioned you know, if we were pantomiming just fine, why would we need language? Well perhaps it's because we needed to free up our hands.

B: Ah, that makes sense.

C: Perhaps you know, caring children, caring you know, hunting, gathering, doing these things that, that we needed to do to survive was intensive. And language evolved so that we could do those things at the same time. As opposed to needing to do one or the other with our with our bodies. And so kind of some interesting, obviously these are speculatory, there's no way to ever really know that. Is speculatory a word?

S: Speculation?

C: Yeah, they are speculation, are they speculatory?

B: Maybe, it sounds like, it sounds right it sounds like it should work.

J: Good to me.

B: But I never heard of it.

J: I understand what you mean, it's a word.

C: Yeah, exactly, there you go.

S: Cara, the other thing is that you can ,that they're very complimentary, because you can communicate vocally without line of sight. But with gestures you need line of sight.

C: Absolutely, so yeah it could be a cross.

S: If you're cooperative hunting and whatever, you might need to like give a communication to a bunch of your compatriots, that may not all be within your visual range. And so yeah I think it makes sense and also you could you can augment the complexity and the nuance of your hand gestures with sounds. There's a related theory here that's from neuroscience, that you know there's a very strong correlation between handed dominant handedness and the dominant hemisphere for language. And it's probably not a coincidence, right? So yeah most of us are right-handed in our left hemisphere dominant for language. And in fact the more right-hand dominant you are, the greater the probability that your language dominance is on the left hemisphere. So there's a pretty, pretty good correlation there. And the thinking is, well that's because you know we're communicating with our right hand the same part of the brain, is can you, you're, right, we're going to use the same part of the brain to communicate, whether it's manually or verbally.

C: Yeah that does make sense. It's interesting because I've always known, and I don't know if the numbers hold from like gosh my memory from ages ago. That whatever the lower percentage of left-hand dominant individuals it's, obviously there's a significant difference there because most people are right-hand dominant. But that within that left-hand dominant group something like 10% of them have flipped brains.

S: No it's more than that. So but it's and it's also, it's a continuum. So if you look at it's like from right-handed to ambidextrous, to left-handed, just the farther you are along that spectrum to right-handedness, the more likely you are. The 100% left-handers are still 20% left hemisphere.

C: Oh it's 20%, okay. It's not 10%, gotcha.

S: Yeah yeah yeah, 27%.

C: Interesting.

S: Yeah but yeah it's very, it's fascinating. I do think you know, you know a lot of people talk with their hands too. I mean there's still a lot of, not even not even counting like American sign language. There is a lot of non-verbal cues in communication and that does include hand gestures. So they're very intimately tied together.

C: Yeah and of course it's it, to some extent it is a highly culture bound some you know, we kind of stereotyped like Italians that's talking more with their hands and other cultures as as using their hands less. But what this interesting experiment granted, is a relatively low end, it was done kind of on a college campus, but, but what this interesting experiment shows is that even when there are pretty significant cultural differences, we can bridge that culture gap. And of course they even cite some early philosophers and writers who you know were traveling the globe and saying if you want to communicate with an you know an indigenous person from a culture very different from your own, the best way you're going to do it is with your hands.

S: That is interesting.

C: Yeah.

Moon Rocks (41:32)[edit]

S: All right, let's move on. Jay, give us an update on moon rocks.

J: Well what would you like to know Steve?

S: Everything.

E: How they taste.

S: Everything you have to say about moon rocks.

J: All right, well, let's, let's first cover like well how do we even have them? Right? Because there are people who are alive right now that probably don't know that much about the Apollo missions. So these Apollo missions did actually pick up a lot of the Moon's regolith and Moon rocks and pebbles and all sorts of things. These missions happened between 1961 and 1972. There were a total of 11 flights, right? 11 missions. With six of them bringing people to and from the Moon. From those six missions, 2 196 rocks samples were brought back to Earth.

B: Whow.

J: Yeah. These rocks, total 842 pounds or 382 kilograms, under the Earth's gravity of course, all in all they brought back lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand, dust you know, moon mites, they brought it all back. 270 were given to nations of the world and 100 to the 50 US states, so I guess that means you know two each. 184 of these rocks are missing or stolen, did you guys know that?

E: What?

C: No.

J: Yes.

C: It's a lot.

J: Yeah it is a lot. The remaining samples are held at the Lunar Sample building at Johnson Space Center. About 400 samples are sent to researchers each year. Which I think even to this day that's, that's great. The Soviets brought back 300 grams, which is approximately three quarters of a pound, from their unmanned missions. And China also has unmanned missions that brought back lunar rocks. It was hard to find details on that. Moon rocks have been thoroughly studied, since samples were made available by NASA. I've held a few Moon rocks over the years, right guys? We, we've had the the chance to see and hold Moon rocks, they're, they're scattered throughout museums across the United States.

S: I don't think we ever held one. We just saw them.

J: Oh no we most certainly did.

S: We held a meteorite that was a meteorite.

C: Yeah, I've held a Moon meteorite, I've never held a Moon rock that that came back from like.

J: Yes we did.

S: An Apollo Moon rock?

C: Really?

S: When? I don't remember that.

J: New Zealand.

S: No that was a meteorite.

C: That was meteorite.

E: No, that was, that was meteorite.

C: Yeah I think we've only held meteorites.

B: We we were also pretty sleep deprived, maybe we did and forgot.

E That was, that, that was that stinky meteorite that was 4.5 million years.

S: We did not hold an Apollo Moon rock, sorry.

C: They keep those under lock.

E: We held one of Darwin's barnacles though.

C: Held a lot of cool stuff.

B: Jay maybe you're thinking about that Moon rock I bought from eBay and I let you touch it. (laughter)

J: It's so funny, like I remember. Well wait, so we've seen, I, you know, we've seen a lot but I thought.

S: We've seen them and we've touched meteorites but we've, you've conflated those two memories.

C: Yeah, because they're both from the Moon, they're just different.

J: Well there it is folks. In real time. My, you know this is the way memory works. Guys, NASA did something extraordinarily clever, which they tend to do. So about 50 years ago they decided to keep some Moon rocks sealed and unspoiled.

E: Yeah collector items.

J: Why'd you think they did that?

S: For later, later analysis which take, with technique that didn't exist at the time.

E: No, for sale on eBay. (laughter)

J: Everybody's correct. No, so, Steve was right. Of course they knew that the technology was going to get better and better and that there might be reasons why we want unspoiled Moon rocks to, you know, to look at and to analyze. And they and they they very, very correctly made that guess because that's exactly what we just did. Right now they are opening up one of these canisters to prepare for the upcoming Moon missions, that are about only, guys, three years away at this point which is another─

E: Oh my gosh, can't wait, exciting, Artemis.

J: ─yes it's coming, it's coming. And think about how awesome that's gonna be, oh my god.

E: It'll give us so much material to talk about.

J: I know, it's gonna be so much fun. So NASA scientists at the Astro Materials Research & Exploration Science division also known as ARES, which is so cool, located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston recently opened up one of these sealed tubes. In fact there is a specific team of scientists that belong to the Apollo next generation sample analysis program. Which is ANGSA, I don't know how you'd say that, ANGSA? These people are studying moon rocks in preparation for the Artemis missions like I said. The rock that they opened up just in February is named 73001 and it was collected by Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt this was back in 1972 during Apollo 17. The collection site was fought was from a landslide deposit in the Moon's Taurus–Littrow valley. And just as a point of interest, they don't know how a landslide occurred on the Moon, since there's no water. Which you should look up because I was looking─

E: Regolith slide.

J: ─something, something happened, you know, could be aliens, nobody knows. (laughter)

S: I'm not saying it's aliens.

J: But it's aliens. (Evan laughs) So they took a metal tube and they hammered it into the surface of the Moon to collect this particular sample. The tube itself is 35 centimeters long by 4 centimeters, that's 13.8 inches by 1.6 inches. Now keep in mind they only have two sealed samples and this is the first one that they opened. Their goal was to analyze the gases that came out of the tube. And now they're looking for signs of volatiles, right? Like carbon dioxide or water. They analyze the gas using spectrometry. That, by today's standards is leagues above anything that we could have done 50 years ago. You know we just couldn't detect nearly what we can detect today. It's a huge amount of technology that has happened. And and predominantly over the last three years, because they said, hey we're going to open these up in a few years to get ready for the for the Moon missions. Let's even make the technology better and NASA built the team to do that and they did it. The instruments they use can precisely determine the mass of the molecules present and they use that data to precisely identify them. Right? It's, it sounds pretty simple but it isn't. One quick note, the sample, that they have, it had an outer tube which they tested to see if any lunar gas had leaked into it. Do you follow me?

E: Yes.

J: Right? So the the innermost, the innermost sealed container that had the rock in it, was encased yet again by another sealed outer container and they tested the air in that outer container to make sure that it didn't have any, you know, anything that would identify it as being from the Moon. Which meant that the inner one leaked. And it didn't. So they know that whatever, whatever is in that inner one is is 100% legit.

B: Pristine.

J: So the seal was completely intact. February 23rd the scientists began breaking into the final layer between them in the Moon, between the Moon rocks. They collected the gas and and then they very carefully took out the sample of Moon rock that was in there. T hey took pieces off of it so they can send samples to other teams for study. Which I, I just find to be very generous, that's awesome. There are three more sealed lunar samples left. The good news is that the Artemis missions will be bringing back more Moon rocks, right? You know so future generations will have those to study. And we should, you know we should be seeing that happen probably right away because we're sending people in three years, and they're gonna people are there to pick up rocks with their hands. Another cool thing about Moon rocks is that sometimes, very rarely, they are found where Steve?

S: Antarctica mainly.

J: Correct. That's correct. So you might ask, how this is possible?

B: How is this possible?

J: Thank you Bob. Something had to hit the Moon and send material into outer space. So some of the moon rock got captured by Earth's gravity. And you know that stuff fell all over the planet. But it becomes easier to find when it's you know surrounded by snow, by you know, ice and snow. So it just sticks out more. If you're walking through a forest and there could be a Moon rock two inches from you and you'd 0never know because it wouldn't really stick out. But it does─

E: Sad thought.

J: ─you know when everything is white.

C: So Jay, I did a story for Nat Geo where I went to Morocco out in the Sahara desert with some Sahrawi to to hunt for meteorites, like on camel, it was amazing. And I remember, I may have shared this before on the show, but I remember Muhammad the man who was kind of leading our tour, said to me: "There are three things that are black against the sand of the Sahara. Old tires, camel shit and meteorites".

J: Yeah.

S: And there's no camel shit or tires in the Antarctic.

C: Exactly, there you go, so the odds were even better.

J: Did you find anything Cara?

C: Yeah, we did, but we didn't find, we found I think Chondrites we didn't find obviously like a Mars rock, that would have been amazing. Or Moon rock. They're actually call Mars rocks, because they're very very black, they call them black beauty. I don't know if there's a name for Moon rocks like a kind of like a slangy meteorite name.

S: A black beauty?

C: Yeah black beauty. Sooo expensive.

J: Cara think about how profound it is though. At some point Mars and the Moon and you know, the other you know, the other inner planets, they got hit by something big. And that thing knocked part of that you know, some of the regolith into outer space which slowly over time you know found its way to the other planets. You know there's probably pieces of the Earth on the other planets and the Moon as well right?

B: Maybe we seeded them.

J: Yeah. I just think, that blows my mind and this is not something that happens quickly, right? This is something that would take a long time, probably, to get you know to fight for the rocket to finally find its way to the other planets. So there you have it guys, so we have a lot of cool stuff going on right now. I mean we busted open those old containers because we actually needed to. And I think that's cool.

C: It's almost like when forensic like when investigators collect evidence and then they're like I'm gonna seal this up for later when we have like way better ways to analyze this.

E: When Geraldo opens Capone's vault, yeah.

J: Remember that?

S: Now is a good time to open them because we're about to get more, as you said with the Artemis program, so hey you might as well crack open the ones from Apollo.

Plasma Lens (51:43)[edit]

S: All right Bob, tell us about using plasma as a lens.

B: Yeah, this one was very interesting. Very , it's very different, unexpected actually. It turns out the most powerful lasers in the future may not have optical components made of glass, but like Steve said, totally spoiling my introductory sentence here (laughter), they could be made of plasma instead.

S: What did you think I was gonna say?

B: I know. You do it every week, totally used to it, no worries. All right so these are from researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, University of California Berkeley and Princeton University. So lasers. So excited about this topic. Who doesn't love lasers? Everyone does or at least everyone should. It's an amazing tool. Right? Think about it. What an amazing tool. It reminds me of a computer, because of its versatility. Think of how many ways you can use lasers. For communication, surgery, printers, tattoo removal, barcode scanners, photo lithography, laser pointers, holograms, ancient DVD technology (Cara laughs). The list, the list goes on and on.

S: Annoying other people at the movie theater.

B: Oh gosh that is that, that is supreme. Was it, wasn't Perry really─

J: Yes.

B: ─pissed at some dude?

J: Perry turned around in his chair and he said something along the lines of "And if we catch you you son of a bitch, you're gonna regret it" (laughter)

B: That was it. So lasers, they're great for so many things. But the little kid in me just loves the pure destructive power of a nice laser. Whether it's real or even if it's just sci-fi. And of course that made me think of that amazing first time that I saw the Death Star super laser blow up Alderaan to smithereens. Then of course you felt as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. And you felt bad you felt bad. But then you remembered this, the super laser and you felt awesome again. But then you remembered that the laser wasn't actually real and you felt bad again. So I'm going to stop right now. (Cara laughs)

C: You guys are the same person.

B: Oh this is easy, it was an easy segue, I don't, I'm not surprised. Steve, Steve mentioned it to me, I mentioned, Steve, I'm talking about this today and he's like Death Star, like yes I'm going to talk about it, don't mention it. (laughter) So it's pretty funny/. So where are we in terms of raw power, right? That's, that was one of my overriding goals, Where are we, what's the biggest, baddest laser in terms of whatever kilo-, mega-, giga-, terawatts. Even if it's just for a sliver of a second, a sliver of a nanosecond, I don't care, what's the most powerful, from certain points of view. So in 2022 the world's most powerful lasers are part of the Extreme Light Infrastructure project, financed by the the European Commission and 13 partner nations. They can achieve 10 petawatts. 10 petawatts. And you know I'm going to go off on this a little bit. So petawatts class lasers, that's 1015. 10 quadrillion watts. A million billion watts of peak power. So, that's amazing 10, 10 petawatts is just, it's just crazy sick stuff. So I mean, and but you can't sit there and look at a 10 petawatt laser. It's just too fast, it's not like a laser pointer, where you could see the beam or Picard shooting a phaser beam that you can dodge. It's so slow. Such a pet peeve right there. But but these intense beams, they last for the tiniest slivers of time, that's why I said peak power. And we're talking on the order of picoseconds and femtoseconds, trillions and quadrants of a second. But that's okay because for that for that brief period of time you, that you have a 10 petawatt beam, it's more powerful than all of the world's power stations combined by like a million times. Amazingly more powerful and of course that just makes my inner 14 year old start giggling, when I think about that. So what about the future? That's, you know, that's all about today. Now what about the future, what about an exawatt class laser system? So can we do that and I say of course we can! Evan laughs) It's my, that's my knee-jerk reaction, but is my knee-jerk reaction feasible? So exa-, you know an exawatt class laser, what are we talking about? 1018 power, that's a quintillion. That's a billion billion watts of peak power. Crazy. So the problem is though that that a laser that powerful would basically melt, or explode, or implode, or do something very nasty to the solid state optics that they use, right? The energy density of such a beam is just way too high for these types of lasers, there's no way that those components would survive using this classic scheme that I'm talking about with it with these specific types of lasers. There may be some you know, some obscure types of lasers that could potentially use some sort of solid state optics for that kind of level. I'm not aware of it, it's not impossible but for these kinds of common research lasers, no, you're not going to get up to exawatt with conventional solid-state optics. So. So this is the exact problem that these researchers have glimpsed a potential answer for. How you, know how could we get around this and it started when they noticed that other researchers in fields like fusion and particle physics, for their research they can use plasmas as some types of optical components. Like amplifiers and mirrors. So they said, they wanted to see if they could do the same thing for example for the type of lens that they would need to create these extremely off the hook you know high energy density laser beams. So now this seemed very promising though. Because the the idea of using plasma as a lens has some really good things going for it. For example number one, plasma is, it's basically a gas of free electrons and ions, right? We talk about it all the time, stars are made of plasma. Plasma has a much much higher energy density than even the highest quality you know glass lenses or solid-state optics available. Much much higher energy density. So number two, these physical lenses then, when you look at a physical lens for a petawatt class laser, they're very, they're very large. They have to be fairly large because you need to spread that energy out over a wider area, right? The more you have that energy in a smaller area, energy density goes up and the material can't take it. So the lenses are big. If you had a plasma lens with its higher energy density then you could, then that lens that plasma lens could be a thousand or even a million times smaller than a glass lens. Think about that. Imagine, I mean imagine like yeah, we're upgrading to a plasma lens. It's gonna be a thousand or a million times smaller than our glass lens. I mean holy crap, that's, that's amazing. Now the plasma lens itself, it's not just like a, that's not like a normal glass lens. I mean it's, they call it a lens but it's a plasma lens is not going to use refraction like a glass lens. A plasma lens focuses using diffraction, like a hologram. So that's why if you read about this, then you'll see lots of mention lots of references to holographic plasma lenses. Because it, it kind of uses this, the same idea, the same idea of using diffraction that that holograms use. Okay. So keep in mind though that they haven't created this yet and that's kind of a bummer that they don't have a laser, you know a high power laser that uses plasma technology in this way. But they did run simulations and it seems to me that this these types of simulations, I think you could be pretty confident about the results, because I think we've got you know this type plasma physics and and things like that and these simulations are pretty pretty well at advanced. So okay, so that caveat out of the way. Using this, these simulations, they fired two ordinary pump lasers at a plasma at a pre-existing plasma. And if you do that just in the right way, what happens is that these, these two ordinary pump lasers, they push the plasma around in a sense, and so such that you've got a dense area and you've got these less dense areas. So it creates kind of a bullseye pattern, right? A bullseye, common bullseye pattern. And that's that pattern is just what you need that if you're to make a plasma act as a diffractive lens. That's exactly what they were looking for. So in in other simulations that they then ran, because once they knew they could create this diffractive lens kind of pattern within the plasma, they ran simulations to see, all right now what kind of of laser beams can that type of plasma pattern support. And they showed in the simulations that such a plasma could be used to create intense beams of laser light with intensities up to 1018 watts per cubic centimeter. In other words an exawatt class laser. So you may be hearing, you may be hearing about this in the future where you know, when they finally get to these you know say 100 petawatt or exawatt class lasers, they will more than likely be using this type of plasma technology as as a lens or in,some in place of some of the classic solid-state optical components. Now, I'm obviously having a little bit of fun here with this with this topic but there's absolutely some very serious science that could be done with this type of you know exawatt class lasers. Because you might think what are we gonna do with that? What? Are we just gonna blow stuff up? No, you know, there is that application of course but there's there's truly helpful discoveries that could be made here. Medicine and material science pop into mind first, I mean that that's huge. But also particle physics, astrophysics would certainly benefit by learning about how nature reacts with exawatt class lasers. It's amazing. You know you could use it to to discern things that, that happen at high energies but extremely brief. You know like we're talking about like attosecond, you know at a second subattosecond science here as well. But, and I'll close with something that I just learned a couple of hours ago. One of the things that we can do with a hundred petawatt above and certainly I would think an exawatt class laser, what they could potentially do. Some scientists think that you could use them to literally tear electrons and positrons from empty space. A phenomenon that they call "breaking the vacuum". So look that one up, that's, I'd like to do an entire talk just on that idea. Imagine you point an exawatt class laser at empty space. What seems to be empty space, even the vacuum and you're─

E: It's not really empty.

B: ─right, exactly. And you're you're basically tearing you know electrons and anti you know, anti-particle pairs electrons and positrons from empty space. I didn't even know that was possible using a high enough powered laser. Maybe it's not possible but that's, they think that can potentially happen once we get up to you know 100 petawatt or an exawatt class laser. So that would be cool. I'm going to be looking for that.

S: Yeah that is interesting, I never thought of, and even, I wasn't even thinking that you know about the problem of yeah really powerful lasers would melt the optics, that's a problem.

B: Right, right?

S: It's nice to hear about a problem and the solution at the same time.

B: Right.

International Paranormal Conference (1:02:37)[edit]

S: All right, Evan tell us about this international paranormal conference.

E: Yes.

B: International?

E: International. Where did it happen? It happened at Rice University

S: Oh boy.

E: ─Houston, Texas. Rice University mission statement: "A leading research university with a distinctive commitment to undergraduate education, Rice University aspires to path breaking research, unsurpassed teaching and contributions to the betterment of our world. It seeks to fulfill this mission by cultivating a diverse community of learning and discovery that produces leaders across the spectrum of human endeavor." Okay great, it's known for its science and engineering programs primarily. A lot of astronauts, it's based down at Houston, Texas so it's tied in with NASA in a lot of ways, and it's been around for over a century, and some of the best research. It's considered one of the best research universities in the world. And again noted, noted for its science program. So yes bastion of science, scholarship and academia. Well let's have a look and see why Rice university is in the news this week. Okay, here's something directly from Rice's website. Rice to host international conference on scholarship of the paranormal. Yep, happened on March the 3rd through 6th in case you were away and didn't, weren't aware that that was happening. Yes so and here's their lead paragraph on this.

"In 2021, the U.S. government released a preliminary report on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), more commonly known as UFOs, following decades of denial and disinformation regarding the existence and investigation of these unexplained experiences. This year, Rice will host a major international conference on the academic study of these UFO phenomena, extrasensory perception and other paranormal phenomena."

Gee, I didn't know that these topics were, you know part of the reputation that Rice has for being a spectacular science and you know, University you know. Which is known for things like astronomy and nanotechnology and other groundbreaking things. Yeah, so here is the organizer of the conference Jeffrey Kripal, k-r-i-p-a-l, associate dean in the School of Humanities at Rice and he holds a chair as well.

"I understand that the word ‘paranormal’ generally makes academics uncomfortable, but what we will show is that the original French word — which meant something like ‘super natural’ — and its related categories were all created by scientists and academics at places like Cambridge, Duke and Harvard,” Kripal said. “In short, this enterprise is an intellectual one, and it is of profound scientific, social scientific and humanistic interest to this day."

All right well when you put it like that it doesn't seem so bad. If I mean if the term paranormal itself was created by scientists and academics in the first place and would seem worthy of a university, especially university like Rice to host such an event. Okay, well the title of the conference is called Archives of the Impossible and when you go to that web page here are the first words you read on that page and I'm only going to read the first couple sentences but believe me it goes on like this. Here's their lead description:

"Such a project is based on the wager that new theory lies hidden in the anomalous, that the paranormal appears in order to mock and shock is out of present normal thinking. Seen in this way, psychical and paranormal phenomena become the still unacknowledged, unassimilated. Other of modern thought, the still unrealized future of theory the fleeting signs of a consciousness not yet become a culture."

I spoke the words exactly as they're written. What the hell did I just read? Was that not the most gobbledygook thing you've like I've heard in a long time?

S: So that's the thing you know, I don't mind, I have to say, I don't mind if if academics, if scientists of scholars, if universities even want to you know investigate some phenomenon, that's on the fringe, that might be considered paranormal. As long as they're doing it rigorously, skeptically, they stand by the results. It's actually good to have. It's, you know, if nothing else, it's kind of a practice in science itself, you know what I mean? But when they're doing it and they're justifying it or trying to paper over the results or bad you know, lack of rigor with that kind of philosophical gobbledygook, that's a problem. Now they're anti-science they're not just you know investigating fringe science, they are anti-science. And that, that is the problem. Again I have no problem investigating things that are probably not true, hedging our bets a little bit with really speculative stuff. Fine, go, have at it, good luck. But you have to be especially rigorous when you go for the fringe stuff. Not less rigorous. Not nonsense like that.

C: Ad isn't there kind of like a, like a red flag when they're like oh okay we're going to look at these unidentified aerial vehicles but also witches. Like they're throwing all the paranormal stuff together, it's like they already know what they're doing. It would be one thing if it was like okay the engineering department is going to look at these UFOs and we're going to try and understand them within the context of what we know about aviation.

S: Yeah, exactly, that's fine.

C: Yeah, but to be like, yeah, let's just throw all the paranormal in the same bucket and have a big conference on it, it's so disingenuous.

S: False legitimacy, yeah totally.

E: And when you have a conference in which you invite the likes of Jacques Vallée, Leslie Kean and Louis Whitley Strieber and you can look them up and these are some people we've talked about before on the show. You know, you go and then you look for okay, that's one one side of the argument, where's the other side. Let's see, where's Joe Nickell on that list, where's Neil deGrasse Tyson, where is Susan Blackmore where is Jennifer Willett, where's Richard Wiseman. They are nowhere to be found. So you have this totally, totally one-sided, as usual, presentation and it is anti-academic if anything.

S: Yeah, I agree.

Who's That Noisy? (1:08:45)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:

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

J: Okay guys last week I played this noisy.

[two things in a jungle setting making horror movie-style cries/calls]

B: Jay, Jay can I use that in my haunted house?

J: The end is my favorite part. What is that noise guys? What are you hearing?

C: It's horrifying?

E: Something hungry.

B: That's a little bit like those those death whistles. Aztec death whistles or whatever that's called.

C: Oh yes. Thse are cool.

E: Oh yeah.

B: I want one. Bad.

J: Okay so I got some guesses, I got a listener named Jess Camilleri and Jess wrote in: "Hey folks, love your work, more important now than ever it would seem. My guess for today's Who's That Noisy is a couple of angry koalas." Jess says that they remember hearing a couple of scrapping koalas on youtube a while ago and the horrible sound was reminiscent of this. That is not correct, but that's a very good guess. You know, a couple of animals something's happening, you know people are pissed off.

Next guess is from a listener named Christian Hansen and he writes: "Hello, I believe this week's noisy is a female mountain lion in heat. Though I have never heard myself living in the PNW we have these locally and I'm quite sure that that is the noise." That is not correct. And I would like to know why you think they're in heat. I'm just curious.

This next listener that sent in a guest, this is Adam and Elise Hepburn and they say: "So I'm sitting here with my youngest daughter and she isn't feeling that great, so we're watching tv. I turned on National Geographic and saw a commercial for a TV show about a vet. Long story short: is it two pigs?". The answer is no, it's not two pigs.

S: It's three pigs. (laughter)

J: If pigs make that noise though all the more reason to eat them.

C: Oh gosh.

J: Next listener name is Foret: "Hey Jay, long time listener, first time guesser. Actually my eight-year-old son Leo is the guesser. His guess is too crazy hyena's fighting. His backup guess is too crazy meerkat's fighting. Well you don't get two guesses so I'm gonna go with the first one. Two crazy hyenas fighting, this is actually a very good guess, this is a somewhat close guess. Just because of like when you when you finally hear the answer, you'll kind of get it. But yeah, this is, that's good. Your son did a good job. Tell Leo to keep listening to the show. One day he'll get it right.

All right, so I'm gonna take you to the winner now. Guys I'm gonna, here's the reveal. This is from Clark. Clark says: "Sometimes when I'm in the woods I worry about mountain lions but then I remember that when my cats pounce they wiggle their butts first. I imagine a mountain lion wiggling its butt before it kills me and I feel like that's okay." That was Clark's guess. (Cara laughs) Clark is not correct but then Clark writes. After his guest he says: "My partner Sarah says those are tasmanian devils". And yes, those are two tasmanian devils. And this I believe is the first time that somebody got it right by their partner throwing it in at the last second, right? For the win! Sarah! So good job Sarah, these are two tasmanian devils. I have to read a response I got from a listener named David who lives in Sydney, Australia. David didn't win because he didn't guess first, but David said: Hi Jay, I doubt I'm the first to guess this but this week's noisy sounds like a pair of tasmanian devils." and he says: "They are fighting over food, territory or sex. It's a bit hard to tell which."

E: Well. Right. You know.

J: So Evan you were correct with your guess before.

S: Is that the tasmanian devil version of eat-fuck-kill? (laughter)

E: Was that a book someone wrote?

J: All right, so let me play that noise, let's play some of the Noisy for you again this was sent in of course by Visto Tutti, here are two tasmanian devils having a discussion about food, sex or territory.

[plays noisy]

E: Yes I believe you should stay on your side of the thicket.

J: You hear the breathing guys?

E: I do not think I'll oblige you and come over to your territory.

J: I have to say I got a lot of, a lot, like pretty much everybody that guessed it right was from Australia, believe it or not. And they, they had first-hand experience. Like a lot of people were like yeah you know I go camping and every time I go camping like I hear that. And my question for you is why would you ever go camping in Australia again? (laughter) You hear WHEEEE you know it's like, oh my god, it's not a pleasant sound. It's fun though. So okay that was that was last week's Noisy.

New Noisy (1:13:41)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy for everybody this week. And this noisy was sent in by a listener named Ian Steins and here is the Noisy:

[building up and loud, echoey cracking and popping]

J: My gut is telling me that I may need to give everyone a hint, so here's your hint, ready? This noisy is related to something that we frequently talk about on this show. That's your hint. If you have any ideas what that noise is, or if you heard something cool – it could have happened at home, at work, while you were shopping, I actually don't care – but if you heard something cool, you send it in, and I'll play it. The the email that you need to send that to is what Cara?


J: Exactly, that's easy to remember. Even Cara remembered it.

E: Good guess Cara.

S: Thank you Jay. So we have a very interesting interview coming up so let's go to that interview now.

Interview with Michelle Ciulla Lipkin (1:14:40)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Michelle Ciulla Lipkin. Michelle, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

MCL: Thanks for having me.

S: Now we we had to have you on the show because we noticed that you are the executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. And media literacy is something that we do, so we thought it'd be fun to chat with someone who's basically, that there's significant overlap with what we do but not quite from the same perspective. Because we are, I think you know we started doing what we're doing with scientific literacy. But we sort of figured out late in the game that media literacy has to be a component of what we're doing. So why don't you give us a primer? What do you do, why is media literacy important, just tell us about your organization.

MCL: Great. Thanks again for having me on. I love talking about media literacy and it's a real pleasure to be on and talk to people that care about this as much as I do. So I am the executive director of namely and we are an organization that really acts as a convener and a resource and a thought leader in the media literacy space in the US. And we are the largest membership organization for media literacy education. And we've actually been in existence since 1997. And that shocks people. Because most of you have not been thinking about media literacy since 1997 but we certainly have been. And we were started by a group of academics that really started to look at media effects. And how we teach and how we read and write in all contexts. And so we really think about media literacy as the 21st century literacy, right? What do we need what do we need to be literate in today's world. And we really do need to be able to consume an author with all types of media attacks. And so our organization has been doing this work for quite some time, and really since 2016 it seems like everyone's starting to pay a lot of attention, to the work and to the importance of it. Which is both exciting and daunting for all of us.

S: So yeah, so you're kind of in the same boat we are in a way. So you started doing what you're doing or your organization, at least in the before time, you know, before social media.

B: When did we start, do we start in 96?

S: Yeah, 96.

B: Kinda like [inaudible] but that's okay. (Cara laughs)

S: And in the last 20-30 years the world has gone to hell. From a media literacy, scientific literacy perspective. And you know, so is that our fault? Or is it just we, or is it thank goodness we were at least we were doing this it would be so much worse.

B: Right. Teaspoon-ocean.

MCL: Yeah. Yeah it's interesting because I, you might not like this, I know you're skeptical but I am a very positive optimistic person. I can't help it. Even when I try not to be it comes out.

B: Me too. (Cara laughs)

MCL: And I actually think, I don't think the world is going to shit. I think we have a lot of issues and we have a lot of you know new systems, new communications, new ways in which we connect and communicate, that we don't quite understand yet. But I still am in that that belief system, that these tools that we have at our disposal are really empowering, and really exciting, and really creative. And I think we just gotta figure out how to how to make sure we're using them for good and not evil. So I want to feel optimistic. I know there's, I know there's a lot of crap out there, believe me. But I do don't, I don't think I could do the work that I do every day without thinking that there is a lot of potential out there in the media system for us to take advantage of.

S: So you're not burned out yet, that's sweet.

MCL: I'm not burned out yet and it's interesting because I've been doing, I've been at namely, this is my 10th year. And I have seen such change, and maybe that's, you know what, maybe that's why I'm optimistic. People used to not return my calls, you know? And it took a really long time to just explain why people needed to be thinking about this. And now the change in the brief amount of time. And really the shift came, you know in, you know there were there were a couple of shifts. Once, one obviously the advent of social media and the impact that that had. But then of course 2016 and and the election and what that did for people understanding social media, and algorithms, and data collection and all of that. And then the advent of, not the advent, but the throwing fake news into the cultural conversation. You know just people started to realize like wow, we have a lot of problems, how are we going to solve them? And then add the pandemic as I'm sure your phone has been ringing off the hook, like there are so many layers to this that have just risen to the top that have made this work so urgent. And for someone that's been doing it for a long time, the fact that I don't need to prove that it's urgent, and I can just get into the how. Like what do we need to do is so heartening to me and so exciting because it means that we can get something done. Am I being too optimistic for this? (laughter)

S: First of all skeptics are not cynics.

MCL: True, and I appreciate that.

C: Except Bob.

S: We're all optimists otherwise we would not still be we've been doing this for 26 years. I mean we would not still be doing this if we were not optimists.

B: That's adorable.

S: And I agree with you, I've had the same experience. I don't have to explain what we do. Like 30 years ago people had no idea what this was all about. They were like I don't get it, like what do you mean, do you investigate ghosts? I mean, what are you doing. And now it's like thank god you guys are doing what you're doing. You know because it's so much more obvious like yeah you talk about we want to give people critical thinking skills. Like oh please, do that, whatever it whatever it takes. Of course everyone thinks that about everybody else, you know?

B: Right.

S: No matter what side you're on, you think that the other side lacks critical thinking skills.

MCL: Absolutely.

S: But I'm sure it's the same with media literacy, I think every, you agree with that? Does it my sense is that everyone thinks media on the other side horrible, terrible, evil and only their media is legitimate. How do you combat that?

MCL: Well also everyone thinks that they're immune to it.

S: Yeah.

MCL: You know they're like, oh no media messages don't impact me. (Cara laughs) You know like oh no I'm not affected by the advertising I see on Instagram, like nothing, you know, like it's so interesting that every, it is a problem for everyone else but not me. I mean, I think what we try to do with media literacy you know, one of the issues that we've kind of come up against is that over the past few years, there's been a rise in conversation about misinformation, disinformation, fake news. And so that has kind of narrowed the focus a bit, when people think about media literacy they think about, you know asking the question, oh how do I know this is true and and kind of equate fact checking with media literacy education. And the truth is is that fact checking is very much a tool, in the toolbox but media literacy wants us to go much further and much deeper to critically think and you know effectively analyze all of the media we create and consume, right? So when I do hear the kind of like this side, that side, or you know when we try to kind of talk in binaries you know like true or false, I try to expand the conversation a bit. Because, there's not two sides, there's a million sides most of the time when it comes to the content that we are viewing. And most of the media messages out there are not, don't fall kind of completely in falsehoods and completely in truth, right? There's a lot of gray area that we need to understand. And so what we try to do is talk about, yeah no, obviously we want to identify disinformation but we also want to understand it, right? And so I think that, not that I'm saying that the people that are like, you know, this is how the you know, this side feels or that side feels, like I think that's an opening to a much deeper conversation that we should be having. Because I think that humans are nuanced and messages are nuanced and we need to be willing to dive in a little deeper.

S: Yeah so you have your own demarcation problem, right? Just like, and there's always a demarcation problem. Science and pseudoscience, skepticism and denial, fake news at real news. It all just sort of a mishmash in the middle. And but it's hard, it's hard to teach people nuance because they like the simple message, right? Don't you think?

MCL: And also that our systems, like social media isn't built for nuance you know. So we have systems in place that are are kind of built their structure is to polarize. You know there's not a lot of nuanced conversation happening on our feeds because that's not the language of these platforms. And so that makes it tricky also. It kind of drives that you know, either-or, my side-your side kind of conversation. And we do need to to be a little bit, not a little bit, we need to be a lot careful with that because, you know it's just the world isn't, real life is not that way. People are complicated. They have complicated thoughts and values and beliefs and we have to figure out a way to to not forget that given the fact that our like, like our main source of communication is kind of fighting us. And trying to really create these systems that are very binary and very true-false, wrong-right, it just, that isn't really how information works.

S: Right, but you got to upvote or downvote, right? You only got two options.

MCL: Yes, yes. Like or don't like, comment or don't, you know like, that's, it's hard, it's not built for nuance.

S: Do you have your, like short list of what is media literacy like, what are the, what are the core principles you want to educate the public about in terms of media literacy skills?

MCL: Yeah, so the way that we define media literacy is, it's the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create an act using all forms of communication. So it's really important that we're not talking about just analyzing and and evaluating, right? We also are talking about that creation step and also talking about action. And it's important to note that that action was actually, is a relatively new addition to the definition because it is something that came with the advent of social media living in a participatory culture, looking at you know the way that we interact and engage as participants. So we need to also really understand what our role is and what is, kind of the parameters in which we navigate this, not only as consumers, we're no longer passive consumers, we're active participants in these media systems. So what does that mean and what is it, what does that mean as as far as my role and where I fit into the whole system. But we do have core principles, we do have six core principles that we talk about and I you know certainly don't wanna bore your listeners with them but essentially it's really framing it as you know an expanded definition of literacy. Talking about how it it's kind of built and reinforced with integrated practice, meaning that it's not something that you can just learn overnight, right? Just like foundational literacy, this is the, these are skills that need to be taught from the earliest ages on. And really looking about how media are part of our culture. And that people use their individual skills, and beliefs, and life experiences to construct their own meanings for media messages. And that's a really important one that, you know we have to be willing to understand our biases, the biases of those that create and construct the media. And really understand that you know, there's no way that every single, there's no way that two people are going to respond the exact same way to media messages. And we have to recognize that, something that I talk about a lot. I teach at Brooklyn College and we talk about that a lot, about how there's just no way I can see the world exactly how my students see it. And they can't see it the way I see it, so what makes us think that we could understand media messages the same. So yeah, so there's some core principles and guidelines that we use to frame media literacy. And there's other groups. We have 90 organizations within our umbrella, so there's a lot of really really good work being done. We have 7 000 members and you know, work being done all across the country that is really quite extraordinary. From a local, regional, community-based efforts but also national efforts. It's really been, it's just been a really incredible time for the media literacy space.

S: So you have the name you know, the word education right in your name and that is again also like our first approach, like how do we make people more you know, the world more logical. It's like well education is the first our first go-to tool. But do you think there are limits to what we can achieve with that? And do we need to? Like as you say do you know we need to talk about how to change the social media algorithms? Are the algorithms going to overwhelm education eventually if we don't pay attention to that as well?

MCL: Yeah well I would say that it has to be a multi-stakeholder solution, because it's certainly a multi-stakeholder problem. I think that what I hear more often than not. And I'm not sure if this is happening in your space but I actually hear a lot about you know regulating the social media companies, the transparencies around the algorithm. And I tend to hear like, to not hear education within the conversation. So we're kind of fighting to say, no, that we have to do all that. But we are not going to make change unless we are changing the way we educate our students, and educate this next generation on how they navigate this world. And also thinking about continuing education because adults are really struggling to navigate this world, because they never learned how to do it either. So I think that education, I think the challenge with education is just the time and effort and the lack of speed, right? It's very difficult to get into the education system and shift the way we do things. And do it in a way that is deliberate and effective, and strategic. And that's the long game. And I find that especially with the arguments that we have, or maybe not the arguments, the conversations we're having about miss and disinformation. We're looking for those short-term solutions. We want to stop it, we want to combat it we want to make it go away. And the problem is education is slow, right? Education takes time, education takes thought. And there's not a lot of people that have the patience for it, right? And so we have to, we have to play the long game and we have to you know kind of battle those folks that are like, okay I can just pass this policy right now and you know regulate the social media companies. Not that that's happening yet, but yes and, what are we doing in our education system? And like I said we have great work going on in the US. But in the education system itself, there's, you know, only one state that even requires a media literacy course. And you know, it's just not in any way a national priority and that is you know, it's atrocity that we're trying to solve. You know like this is, this is key to people succeeding in the world.

E: We have similar obstacles as well that we've experienced in skepticism, absolutely.

S: Yeah, what's more important to teach students than media literacy, right? I mean we live in a world where the the divide between those who can access useful information and those who can't, obviously it's a continuum, but that may be the number one determiner of your quality of life in a lot of ways, right? The wealthiest people in our society are dying due to their own media illiteracy or lack of critical thinking skills. I, you know, we tend to think of these things all together. So yeah, absolutely, and again like yeah, we want to teach critical thinking in schools, and scientific literacy. The problem, one problem that sort of we've run into, is that like critical thinking became a buzzword in education. Not sure that they're teaching what we would consider real critical thinking skills, you know what I mean? Just kind of paying at lip service and they're doing things that are sort of critical thinking but, so you know, my concern would be, yeah media literacy becomes a new sort of education buzzword ut is it really doing what we needed to do? That's been a, I agree, it's been a very hard space to crack, the education culture.

MCL: Yeah and I think yeah because, yeah and you just hit on it, because you can break into it, but what if it's not well done, right? So what if it's bad, what if it's bad media literacy practice? And you know, and that, that is tough. And so that's why we, I don't know where you guys lean in terms of like where your efforts like, where you focus your efforts, but for us it's teacher training. Like for us it's not as much there are so many resources out there, so much curriculum, so many lesson plans, it's amazing. But, if we're not training teachers, how to bring it into their classroom or not training teachers how to kind of integrate the media literacy skill building into English and science, and math, and all the other subjects, then we're not going to get anywhere. So to us it's like, what about the teacher training schools, how are we teaching people to teach this? Is really an important question we ask.

S: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah you know, we would love to do more of that. We've done seminars and of course you know we, our podcast, a lot of teachers listen to that, use it in their classroom, a lot of teachers use our book in their classroom. And so that, I agree, that is critical, that's something I would like to do more of actually.

B: We need our book in every classroom. (Jay laughs)

S: And of course you know, we're talking about us, meaning the five of us on this show. But there's also us this, the broader skeptical community, which is you know, very, it's a more of a loose multi-faceted sort of common purpose organization. It's not really organized from the top down. It's more bottom-up. So just a lot of people doing different things. But that, I agree, that educating educators is─

MCL: Yes.

S: ─that's I think where a lot of the game is right there.

MCL: And that, and think about this environment right now, you know? The last thing educators need right now is is more stuff, right? And and they're so exhausted, and so beat down, they, it has been such a difficult time for them. You know, from the pandemic, to the book banning to you know you just hear about the you know the kind of experience teachers are having right now, and we have to do a not beyond media literacy and critical thinking we have to do a lot to reframe that profession and make sure it's something that people want to do and want to explore, because it's been a really tough time for teachers.

S: Yeah, I agree, I think education is going through its transition, it's a little slow and it's may be hard to see but you know, what's the role of education in a world but you can get access to any information you want at your fingertips you know on social media. You know, I think it's what, I guess again, it gets back to, they need to teach people how to access and evaluate information. Because it's all there, they don't, we don't need the educational system to provide information, it's all there. We just need them to teach kids how to think, how to be critical thinkers, how to access information, how to be media literate, right?

MCL: Yeah I mean, I think that that you know, that's a really good point and I think that if you really think about it, what we need is a revolution in education, right? Like if we really think about it, we need to to change you know how we think about, what, like when we think about the kind of that phrase "what does it mean to be college and career ready", you know? How are you not teaching them these skills? Like because isn't that you know, it doesn't quite matter what you do after you graduate high school or college, you're gonna need these skills, right? They're, you know, going to be forever valuable and needed. So it's, that's one of the reasons that we are we have a conference every year and our conference is coming up. We're doing it virtually again July 15th to 17th and it's called. The theme is Level Up: Building a Media Literate World. And really what we're trying to do is bring together that conversation which is, okay great, we're doing good work, but how do we level up, how do we take it to the next level? How do we scale? How do we make this the national priority that it needs to be? One thing I would love to share just with everyone listening is that we are a free membership organization. So if you're interested in media literacy and you want to join you know it is totally free, it's that join button on our web home page. And besides our conference we also host US media literacy week which is October 24th to 28th and it's a great opportunity to like do stuff in your community around media literacy and also attend you know virtual or community based events. So I just wanted to let people know if they're interested in learning more and getting involved, there are ways to do that.

S: Great, yeah, that's and you have a lot of, you have a resource page on your website, I've been looking through a lot of good articles on there. A parent's guide to media literacy and fighting misinformation about coronavirus. So a lot of good resources there for our audience if they're interested in checking it out. Well Michelle thank you so much for joining us on the show. It's always good to talk with people who are sort of intersecting the skeptical movement but not, you know, not 100% overlap and it's, it sounds like you're facing a lot of the same things we are.

MCL: Absolutely, I really appreciate chatting with you and just also learning a little bit about what you are all doing.

S: Great, thanks again for coming. Take care.

B: Thank you.

E: Thank you very much.

Science or Fiction (1:38:14)[edit]

Item #1: Researchers identify two genes that allow people to have full sleep benefits from only 4-6 hours of sleep a night, and as a bonus, protect against the pathology of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease.[6]
Item #2: Scientists have developed a tiny EMP protection device that can shunt electricity at up to 6,400 volts in a few billionths of a second.[7]
Item #3: A reexamination of data demonstrates that as many as 20% of exoplanets previously validated through the transmit method are instead small stars.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction 20% of exoplanets are stars!
Science Tiny E.M.P. protection device
Genes for full sleep benefits
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
20% of exoplanets are stars!
20% of exoplanets are stars!
20% of exoplanets are stars!
20% of exoplanets are stars!

Voice-over: 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 expert skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. And you know what? For all of those people listening at home, or in the car, wherever you are, you can play along too.

J: Thanks Steve.

S: Yeah I know you needed that invitation.

E: You don't even need an app.

S: All right, three regular news items. Are you guys ready? Actually it's three awesome news items. (Cara laughs)

C: Not regular.

S: Not regular. All right here we go. Item #1: Researchers identify two genes that allow people to have full sleep benefits from only 4-6 hours of sleep a night, and as a bonus protect against the pathology of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.

Item #2: Scientists have developed a tiny EMP protection device that can shunt electricity at up to 6,400 volts in a few billionths of a second.

And item #3: A reexamination of data demonstrates that as many as 20% of exoplanets previously validated through the transmit method are instead small stars.

All right, Bob go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: All right let's go with the first one here, two genes allow people to sleep 4-6 hours at night. Yeah I totally believe that that's gene dependent and whatever those genes are, Jay doesn't have them.

J: I do not.

B: You do not. And I mean, I don't think I have either, I'd like a good eight, eight hours─

S: Not me.

B: ─or even or even ten is is doable.

S: My brain don't function on four hours of sleep or even six hours.

E: Yeah, I can't, I need minimum six, minimum.

B: So but yeah, this sounds sounds totally reasonable to me. Let's see, tiny EMP, a tiny EMP protection device. That doesn't sound like it's breaking any laws of physics. It's impressive but yes, we need EMP protection because EMPs can be bad if they're used by evil actors. Very bad. Okay, let's look at this last one here. Let's see 20% of exoplanets are not exoplanets. Instead they're small stars. 20%. That sounds, yeah sounds a little high. I totally buy that some of them can be small stars instead of exoplanets but 20% sounds a little too high so I'll say that's fiction.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Well well, okay so let's go here to the researchers identify the two genes that allow people to have full sleep benefits. Now Steve how long would it take to CRISPR this into me?

S: Yeah, right?

J: Like can we please start using CRISPR for things like this because I need help. That would be amazing. I completely believe this, because, I, you know just makes sense, right? There are people that can absolutely survive on four to six hours of sleep and do quite well. And I want, I want what they have. That one is science. Second one here, scientists have developed a tiny EMP protection device. Okay I also think this one is science. I agree with Bob, I think that it is within the realm of physics, it's a cool achievement, that's for sure. If this is true. But this last one here, the demonstrating that 20% of exoplanets previously validated through the transit method are instead small stars. I mean if we confuse planets for stars, I think we're in trouble. I think that one. (Bob laughs)

S: Okay Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I gotta go with the guys, because I don't really know a whole lot about the exoplanet thing. But that one feels like you might have just made it up at a whole cloth.

S: So you're going for exoplanets?

C: Going for exoplanets.

S: All right and Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: No, don't leave me alone, hey, wait for me.

C: Oh you've gone, you've gone a different way?

E: No no, I agree 20% of exoplanets, my gosh, what do we know about, 4 000 exoplanets─

B: About that, yeah.

E: ─and what, 800 of them misidentified as stars? I don't think that's right at all, so fiction.

S: Okay so you all agree on the third one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: We'll start with number one. Researchers identify two genes that allow people to have full sleep benefits from only 4-6 hours of sleep a night, and as a bonus protect against the pathology of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. You guys all think this one is science. And this one is... science. Yep, this is totally cool.

E: Wow.

C: Why don't you have this? I want this.

S: Yeah so this is, FNSS: Familial Natural Short Sleepers, right? So these are clinically identified people who are perfectly fine with four to six hours of sleep at night.

B: God they're so damn lucky.

C: I know.

B: Four hours!.

S: And so they wanted to see, are they, are they really doing okay with with the short sleep time or is there any negative effect. And what they found actually was that, they're they are perfectly fine and in fact this was, I actually think this was in a rat model, but still, they found that they, yeah they had fewer you know tangles and other pathology. They, so they had rats that had these two genes plus also genes that predispose them to Alzheimer's disease and the ones that had the sleep, the short sleep genes, got less of the bad pathology associated with Alzheimer's disease.

B: Whoa.

S: The plaques and tangles. Yeah, I mean this is still a couple steps removed from the pathology and not Alzheimer's disease. Because you know we need to know clinically to these people, are they less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or other neurodegenerative disorders. So that would be really, imagine that if there's a gene that just makes your brain function better so you need less sleep and it's less likely to have bad stuff happen to it. I mean that would be nice. They also, they know that there are multiple genes involved, they just looked at these two. There's, we know of other ones that they did not specifically study. And there's probably ones we haven't discovered yet. So this, this area of research is trying to identify the genes, find out what they do, find out what their full effects are but this is, you know there's still a lot of research to be done.

B: That's a, that's a life changer man because not just from just the pure hours awake and doing stuff.

C: Yeah, I need so much sleep, it sucks.

S: But, here's the thing. This research may lead to clinical applications short of CRISPR, right? Short of changing out, swapping out genes.

B: Oh yeah.

S: If we if we figure out what the gene products doing, well that protein is blocking this receptor.

B: Yes, exactly.

C: Just make a drug.

S: It becomes a new target, right? It's a, it's a new biological─

B: That's fantastic.

S: ─target that we can then maybe develop pharmaceutical or whatever to try to interact with it and then reproduce the benefits. That would be, that would be incredible.

B: Steve if they did CRISPR them though, where were they like, where would they be active? In the brain?

S: That's a good question. Yeah so and that would be hard to do. Like you have to get them to existing neurons, you know? It's not not a good cell population you know for that sort of thing. Maybe it's in astrocytes, maybe it's in support cells, maybe it's, I don't know they would it's, we'd have to figure out where what cells are expressing these genes.

B: Could it be in your butt?

S: Probably not.

B: I don't think so.

C: All those differentiated butt cells. (Bob laughs)

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right, let's go to number two. Scientists have developed a tiny EMP protection device that can shunt electricity at up to 6,400 volts in a few billionths of a second. You guys all think this one is science and this one is science. Yeah so this is this is super cool, although it's not over the threshold yet, right? In terms of like completely protecting our grid for example. Some of the devices that we would need to protect with this, like the giant transformers on the on the grid, operate at 20 000 volts. So 6400 volts is high and the fact that, this is a diode basically. So this is a device that will shunt electricity in one direction. So it's kind of could you, so essentially they're designing it to be like a pressure valve for electricity. If you have something that is short-circuiting or overwhelming the circuit this would open up and shunt the electricity away from vital components, so it doesn't fry your transformer, that will take you six months to rebuild or whatever. Or other sensitive equipment. So this could still be useful for lots of applications but we want to get like real full grid protection. We need to make even better versions of this. They're hoping to engineer a device like this, that can handle up to 20 000 volts. Then we'll be like really fully there. This technology is really great. And this is the kind of thing you could put into satellites for example, it's not just you know EMPs from like nuclear weapons, it's also coronal mass ejections and other things. Anything that could induce a current.

B: Right. And don't forget Steve. It's not just, it's not just nuclear weapons and coronal mass ejections. It's a single nuclear weapon. Just one. That's all it takes. You know, you detonate one over the, over a country at like say, at a decent altitude and there. Bam. I mean you overload circuits throughout the entire country. It's like, bam, you're now back into the 17th century with no electricity for you know for, god knows how long. So that's, that's the, that's one of the dangers here. Not just the CME but one nuke can throw a country into the dark ages for a while. So this would be good.

S: Yeah so this is technology to harden the grid or harden our infrastructure against that type of attack or against a natural event or whatever. So it's a good advance.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Which means that a reexamination of data demonstrates that as many as 20% of exoplanets previously validated through the transmit method are instead small stars is the fiction although I suspect Bob you read this one, from what you were saying.

B: Yeah.

S: That they did, they did identify up to four previously verified planets as actually being small stars. So I just made up the 20% part.

B: I think you should have said 10% or 9%, not 20.

S: You think twenty is too high?

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah, I know it's always, it's always a judgment call. I gotta make it clear that the fiction is gonna be fair without giving it away.

B: Just call me, I can help you out, you know. (laughter)

S: Yeah. So I err on the side of being fair rather than tough. For most of the time.

B: Yeah but two or two to four out of what? Four thousand or? What's the ratio?

S: So first of all, no but it's not for, it's only the ones that are identified with the transit method first of all. Most of which are big, most of which are like Jupiter-sized planets.

B: Which makes sense because the transit method.

S: It makes sense transitions, those are the ones most likely to be misinterpreted at you know versus, a small star versus a large planet basically. And it's like not like we're seeing these things. Like this is all just light curves and stuff you know, so it's, and so the paper was saying that you have to take into consideration some aspect of the property of the host star to fully interpret. Like the diameter of the body that's causing the the transit. So essentially the transit method, like a planet moves in front of a star, blocks certain portion of light, the light dips. And then we could see how long it takes to move all the way across the front of the star and we get an idea of how what the radius of the object is. But you know at the at the margins it could be, you know, it could be really low signal to noise ratio.

B: Maybe it's a dimmer star transiting a brighter star, right? Is that kind of is that kind of like makes sense?

S: Yeah I guess so. I mean it gets pretty technical but I'm just saying this over the ones that they examined saying looking at the phase curve analysis right, that the inferred physical radii were off. And if and if when you make corrections, the inferred radii are in the small star range. They are bigger than a planet can possibly be. So it has to be a small star.

B: Right and these are binary star systems that we're seeing then.

S: Yeah. Or more. Yeah, they're multi-star systems, yeah, right. But you know hopefully it's not 20% you know, that is high that would be a lot yeah be mistaken. All right so good job guys.

J: Thank you.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:50:27)[edit]

But my experience has taught me two lessons: first, that things are seen plainer after the events have occurred; second, that the most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticized.
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), 18th president of USA

S: All right Evan do you have a quote for us?

E: I do and it was suggested by listener Rob Marsh, who is reading a book you President US Grant's Memoirs which is actually a book I want to read someday too. And he came across this passage in there and he thought it was relevant, so: "But my experience has taught me two lessons: first, that things are seen plainer after the events have occurred; second, that the most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticized."

C: Sounds about right.

E: That's right, I guess it's a timeless, you know, realization in a way. It doesn't matter if it was in the 19th century or the 21st century.

S: Yeah did he just anticipate Dunning–Kruger by a hundred years, 120 years?

E: Well he was a time traveler so.

S: Yeah. (laughter)

E: So thank you Rob, we appreciate that quote.

S: Yeah that's a fun quote. Well everyone, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: You got it.

E: Thanks Steve.

C: Thanks Steve.sgu

Signoff (1:51:24)[edit]

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

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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