SGU Episode 357

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SGU Episode 357
19th May 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 356                      SGU 358

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


PP: Phil Plait

C: Chris Lewicki

Quote of the Week

You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.

Benjamin Graham

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, May 15th 2012, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Top of the evening to you.

S: And we have a special guest rogue with us this evening: the Bad Astronomer himself, Phil Plait...

PP: Hey, hey. You know—

R: Wow! For the first time ever.

PP: I was going to say—

S: Finally we got you on the show.

PP: This is like the 300th time I've been on this show; I don't think I'm special anymore.

R: Awww... you'll always be special to us.

PP: Oh thank you, Rebecca.

J: God! All right. Can we please start with the science? Let's go...

This Day in Skepticism (0:51)[edit]

R: You know what, Phil? If you were to die, I would put your head in a device that maintained your life somehow. Much like the one that was patendend... patented.

J: "Patendend".

S: "Patendend".

R: It's a hard word to say.

B: Paten-tated.

R: On May 19th 1987, a device for perfusing an animal head from Chet Flemming. Chet created a machine, or at least the drawings for a machine, which he called a cabinet, that would and I quote, "Provide physical and biochemical support for an animal's head which has been discorporated. (i.e. severed from its body). The device can be used to supply a discorped head with oxygenated blood and nutrients by means of tubes connected to arteries which pass through the neck." And there's all sorts of interesting little tubes and stuff in the drawings that provide for waste disposal and all that stuff.

B: Oxygenation, yeah.

R: Yeah, 1987. That was the year that the Futurama head in a jar[1] became... well not a reality but... ah...

PP: A drawing.

S: A fiction.

E: A living, breathing concept.

R: A slightly less implausible reality.

PP: So this guy had a drawing and Futurama is basically all drawings so I don't really think that's a step forward.

R: That's a good point.

S: In this guy's diagram, it has the animal head, which looks suspiciously like a human head.

R: It could be a chimp.

PP: Is it Richard Nixon?

S: It could be a chimp.

R: It's from the back, so it's hard to tell.

S: I don't know; those ears are awfully humanoid.

J: But why? All kidding aside, and the Futurama thing; sure. But why the hell would you want to do that?

S: I think this actually a script for a horror movie.

E: Real horror show.

R: Jay, aren't you the one who is having his head frozen?

J: Oh my god. Yeah, because I want it in a box? No.

B: Cabinet. Cabinet.

S: Well, Jay, what if that's all they can do when they thaw out your head, it's just going to be in a cabinet attached to tubes. It's not going to be actually attached to a robot or a flesh body. It's just going to be a head in a box.

J: Then I would tell them to kill me.

R: You'd still take it.

J: I would say melt my head down for spare parts.

R: No, come on, head in a box; they could put a monitor in there. You could still watch TV.

PP: What happens to the body? Does he talk about that? Do you become one of the headless monks from Doctor Who[2]?

R: If he had plans for the body they're in another patent I haven't found yet.

E: That's a different category.

J: They have a cabinet that keeps a body alive without a head.

R: Oh yeah; I think Dr. Caligari actually patented that. That's a German expressionist[3] joke there. Thank you.

News Items[edit]

Ghost Box (3:34)[edit]

S: Well, OK. So we're going to go from the head box to the ghost box.

B: Oooh, nice.

S: Evan, what is a ghost box?

E: Yeah, that's an excellent question. This one comes to us courtesy of, and as you said, Steve, what is a ghost box? Well, according to the article:

A ghost box is a hand-held AM/FM radio that is modified to allow continuous scanning of every radio station at a rapid speed. The ghost box allows for tidbits of sound waves from each station to just barely be heard as it scans through the radio stations. During this scanning, it is believed that ghosts or spirits are able to manipulate the radio frequencies and have their voices heard in real time[4].

S: Yeah, so if you ever—you know, if you're old enough to be familiar with the old-style radios with the analogue dial where you could actually spin the dial up and down the frequencies—up and down the stations—that's what it sounds like, but just in a continuous loop. So Evan, play for everyone what it sounds like when this is happening.

E: All right. Yeah, here's the first clip I pulled. Just a little piece; let's see if you can figure out—well, see—hear—let's see what you hear.

(static and short snippets of sound)

E: Now did you get that? That was clear as day.

PP: Paul McCartney is dead.

R: That was Shakespeare, I think.

S: Something about a duck?

R: "Why the man he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus"[5], I think that's what that was.

E: Yeah, well the person who recorded that claims he heard his own name in there, Philip, and also the word "help".

R: Phil, did you hear your name in that?

PP: No...

J: So that guy heard his name and he heard "help" in that scratchy stuff?

S: Yeah. He heard Philip, blip blip.

E: Bilip! Darp!

S: Because every time you heard blip, you can say "that's Philip." Now, when you watch this on YouTube of course, he has the words you're supposed to be hearing flash up, and of course you hear whatever words pop up.

B: That invalidates the whole thing.

S: Of course.

E: That's the point.

PP: He should play it backwards. That's where the real message is.

E: It might actually make sense if we do that.

R: What, do you want to get possessed?

PP: You know, I love this kind of stuff because people don't know how a radio works when they're alive. Yet somehow when they're dead...


PP: ...their discorporated soul can manipulate and modulate radio waves in such a way that they can communicate.

R: It's a good point.

PP: Which of course, is much simpler than just appearing and saying, "hey, how's it going? Hell sucks; heaven's awesome."

J: It's called "ghost in the machine", Phil. When you become a spirit you know all electronics. It's inherent.

S: You can manipulate film, apparently.

R: I'll finally be able to set the time on my microwave. Can't wait.

B: So this stupid box essentially automates and accelerates audio pareidolia generation.

S: Exactly. It's an audio pareidolia box. That's what it is.

J: (laughs)

PP: Wow.

S: Exactly.

R: The really sad thing is if you watch this guy's YouTube video, it's basically a guy talking to a radio.

S: (laughs) It is. It's sad.

R: He's saying—he's like, "hello?" and then it goes boop, and he's like, "aaah! Hi! You're there."

J: "Aaah. You don't say, you old fool."

R: Like, this guy is forever alone.

S: It is metaphorical mental masturbation. It really is.

R: Yeah, literally his only friend in the world is a radio.

E: And he took this radio and he used a Brother label maker or something and put the words "ghost box" on it, and that makes it an official ghost box; no longer just a simple radio. No, now it's a ghost box because it says so right on the label.

S: Well this is—this has been around for a while actually, the "ghost box". It was developed by a guy named Frank Sumption, who called it the "Franks Box". (affected voice) I call it a Monroe Box.


S: Called it a Franks box, and... but yeah, it's just a way of scanning the radio signals and generating random noise. Remember, Evan, when we did that EVP session with those women. We went to that restaurant—a local restaurant that's supposed to be haunted and we sat in a room for three hours, waiting and listening for just soft noises or people talking in the street or something. So that's boring. You've got to listen to hours of nothing until, you know, some snippet of a phrase comes out. This way it's continuous; it's just generating... literally generating noise and also, because you're actually going through stations, there will be words; there will be literal words from people talking on the radio or songs or whatever.

J: I've seen that in science fiction movies where they have... I don't think it was ghosts, though; it was aliens that like turned the radio knob to whatever, you know the word it needed from all these talk shows. It could actually talk to the person.

PP: That was The Greatest American Hero.

J: Thank you. I used to love that show.

E: Whoa, wow.

R: Oh my god, really?

PP: The aliens communicated with Bill Culp[sic] and... um... William Katt? Was that his name?

J: Not only was that one of my favourite TV shows as a kid but the theme song to that show; I still listen to that.

R: It's a great theme song.

J: Love it.

E: Believe it or not, right?

R: (sings) Believe it or not / something something something.

J: I'm walking... talking on the radio...

E: I'm listening to ghosts.

R: I made a ghost box!

J: (laughter)

S: Evan's also right in that they just put the word "ghost" in front of stuff and then it becomes part of their ghost research. So, like...

R: Yeah, Frank Box is not nearly as scary as "ghost box"; you can see why they changed it.

S: Like, cold spots are "ghost cold" and spots on film are "ghost orbs", you know. What they don't do is any actual experimentation or research. There's no controls; there's no, like, listening to it without the suggestion of what you're supposed to hear or comparing the results of having the radio—the scanner go through the stations in a neutral location versus an allegedly haunted location. They're not generating and testing hypotheses; they're literally just looking for anomalies, in this case they're generating them and declaring whatever happens to be a ghost and then calling it research.

E: And Phil, you spoke about this as well. They don't know how to use the actual equipment; they don't know how a radio works; they don't know how EMF readers work, thermal scanners, night vision equipment. Simple-to-use cameras and camcorders are even beyond their comprehension because they don't get the concepts of lens flare, shutter speeds and how those sorts of things work.

PP: Well, it's worse even than that. Because if there's some phenomenon here, you don't have to understand how it works, but they're just coming in and saying, "you know ghosts can manipulate the radio waves". It's like," all right, let's start there, before we're actually talking about messages here". And there's nothing like that. It's just that's their starting assumption. It's like pulling on to the highway in the wrong direction. It's like maybe you need to fix that first before you worry about your turn signals not working. So this whole thing is just a... well, it's like Steve said, it's the EVP with just an extra step involved.

S: Well it is funny, and if you want to lose faith in humanity, read the comments on the YouTube video that we'll link to.

B: Oh. That's OK; I already lost mine.

E: Oh, gosh. They even mentioned you in there, Steve. Definitely worth a read.

S: Oh did they? I mean, there definitely now are the skeptic lurkers on sites like that and on videos like that, but the rank and file are like, "oh this is stunning proof of the paranormal!". Yeah, right. This is what passes for proof for you guys. We got it.

Mayan Calendar (11:06)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on. Phil, apparently there was an interesting archaeological discovery about the Mayan calendar and we're going to have to revise the date for the end of the world.

R: Oh no! But I already made a cake.

E: I packed my bags.

PP: You plan way in the future, Rebecca.

R: I like cake.

PP: I don't think we have to revise the date of the end of the world; we're pretty sure it's still six or seven billion years from now when the sun turns into a red giant and fries the planet. The deal here is the Mayan civilisation—now there are still Mayans around, but the sort of the classical height of the Mayan—I wouldn't call it an empire, but a civilisation—was, you know, a thousand years ago; something like that. And they were an interesting group of people. They were fascinated with the calendar and they were fascinated with cycles. Their calendars were similar to ours in that they're based on cycles. We have days and years, which are sort of fundamental; they're physical things based on the turning of the Earth and the Earth going around the sun. But there are also weeks and months and collections of units like that that we use. They had a similar thing, although they used, of course, different units. Now, it turns out that you could think of it a little bit like an old-style odometer on a car, where it would tick through tenths of a mile and then when you got to nine tenths it would click over to one point oh miles then when you got to nine point nine miles, it would click over to ten; their cycles did the same thing and our calendars do the same thing; at the end of the month you go to the next month, at the end of twelve months you go to the next year. So they have all these cycles and the idea here is that some people are saying that at the end of this particular cycle, which lasts about 400 years, the Mayans were saying this was going to be the end of the world. Now mind you, this is totally wrong. This is the end of one cycle; it was just going to go to the other cycle; we have known for a long time that they have much larger cycles than 400 year cycles. They have some that last for thousands and even millions of years. So the whole idea that their calendar ends is wrong. The whole idea that this cycle that they though it was going to be the end of the world is wrong. The idea that there's any physical evidence that the world's going to end on December 21st 2012 is wrong; stop me if you've heard this before. So the news is that some archaeologists were poking around in a temple and found a room that had been discovered previously but hadn't been explored. And when they went in there they found painting on the wall that were sort of like notes, as I understand it. And they found a lot of things that were clearly representing the cycles of Venus and Mars as they go around the sun. So there were clear ties to astronomy and what they also found is that they had, basically, cycles that went on and on and on. So this isn't anything ground-breakingly new as far as what we knew about the Mayans. What this gives us is insight into how they thought and how they were determining these cycles. So it's not that "they've discovered this new cycle that went past December 21st"; it's nothing like that. It's just more depth and breadth to how they determined this stuff. So archaeologically, this is awesome. Skeptically and as far as the doomsday stuff goes, it's nothing new because we already knew that was all baloney in the first place.

S: Right, right.

R: And that's why I have a conspiracy theory and it is this: archaeologists got sick of everybody whining about the end of the world and ignoring everything they were saying about "it's just the calendar turning over, blah blah blah". So they're like "oh, look, we found a new calendar."

S: (laughs)

PP: Aah, but like all conspiracy theories, you have a fatal flaw that's obvious. Archaeologists who study Mayan civilisation are enjoying a heyday like they've never seen before right now.

R: That's true.

PP: So I'm seeing books; I'm seeing TV shows; you know, stuff on the History Channel, say.

R: Yeah, and the discovery of a new calendar would not only put an end to the end-of-the-world problems, but would garner them a lot more media attention.

PP: Well, for a day or two.

R: Mmm?

PP: Well, it's only May though. I mean, they've got months and months to keep raking in all this sweet, sweet cash from the media.

E: That's right.

R: From the History Channel.

PP: They're making dozens of dollars from this, so.

R: Right. All right, good point.

S: Right. There's free food in the green room. You know, one of the cycles was 2.5 million days long; I think one that had to do with predictions of lunar eclipses, again an astronomical tie. So that's something like 6,000 years, right? So yeah, clearly they were thinking well beyond December 2012.

PP: Yeah. And we've known that. As a matter of fact—

S: Yeah.

PP: —this particular cycle that is ending, the Bak'tun, which is what it's called.

E: It's like Klingon.

PP: It's not even the last one. This is kind of like the end of May (laughs) Right? And not December, so there's plenty more Bak'tuns in the cycle that goes up to the next one, which I believe is the Piktun. I love that language; it's got all these great glottal stops and different consonant combinations than we have in English. It just sounds—it's a little bit like Klingon, actually. Sorry, Rebecca, to bring that up.

R: It's OK.

B: Qapla!

PP: But it's fun to read about this stuff and think about it. So there's just—there's nothing to this basically from any direction you're looking.

J: The thing that bothers me about the whole 2012 BS is that it's going to come and go and then it's simply just going to fade away. There isn't going to be like—there might be a couple of days, but there won't be a big kind of like a reconciliation; people saying they were wrong or any of that stuff. They'll just click over to the next line of BS.

PP: That's the worst part of this. It's not that it's going to go away and then people will forget; it's that it will come again. And we had Planet X in 2003 and the alignment of the planets in 2000 and Harold Camping, if you want to talk about him, last year. But these astronomical doomsday things, they come and they go and it's the same people over and over again. This one—they're recycling Planet X for this one. I'm seeing it everywhere; Nibiru.

E: Yeah.

PP: It's... nothing—no, no bad idea ever goes to waste.

E: Do you think we can declare December 22nd "wah-wah" day?

PP: National sad trombone day. I like that.

S: (laughing) Yeah, sad trombone.

Electricity from Viruses (17:52)[edit]

S: All right. Bob, you're going to tell us about getting electricity from viruses.

B: Yeah, this was pretty cool. You've got to give viruses some credit, I guess; you know, they're not nearly as cool as bacteria but they do have some surprising benefits in the future in areas that you might not expect, like power generation. Scientists have recently been the first to generate electricity using the piezoelectric effect created from a biological material. Now this milestone was recently announced in Nature Nanotechnology in a paper called Virus-based Piezoelectric Energy Generation. We've touched on piezoelectricity before. This is the generation of electric charge from simple mechanical stress. This is a phenomenon that was discovered in the 1880s by French physicists Jacques and Pierre Curie. Uh, jeez, was there anything that that family did not do? But this type of electricity generation can be seen in lots of materials, like crystals, which you're probably most familiar with, but also ceramics and DNA and protein—

S: Bone, yeah.

B: —even bone. Yeah. Now this—it's not just an esoteric lab curiosity; I mean, obviously we've got quartz watches, which use the effect, but also you could see this effect in electric guitars, ink-jet printers, electric cigarette lighters, scanning probe microscopy. It's pretty much in lots of different places but it's not easy to produce. This was a bit of a surprise to me. The materials, apparently, that are used to make this can be toxic and it's very hard to work with. So otherwise I would guess that it'd be even more common than it is today if it was a little easier to make.

S: So they want to use viruses, which are entirely non-toxic and safe.

R: I can't think of a single problem with it.

S: What could possibly go wrong?

E: Yeah.

B: These are actually—well, yeah; these viruses—these scientists discovered a virus that produces a piezoelectric effect. These aren't just ordinary viruses; these are M13 bacteriophages, which are fascinating; I kind of—I really love these little guys now. They're so cool.

E: Isn't M13 a gang?

B: Look them up because just the image of these guys; I've seen this image for years and I've always thought it looked like this weird alien life form. But they only attack bacteria; they're harmless to humans so there's nothing really to worry about coming in to contact with them, and they're ubiquitous; there's few organisms on the planet that are more common and diverse as these phages are. The bottom line is these viruses produce this piezoelectric effect but it wasn't strong enough; they needed to beef this up; they needed to make the effect stronger. So they used genetic engineering, specifically recombinant DNA techniques and what they did was they added negatively charged amino acids to one end of the helical protein structure on the bacteriophage, so they essentially increased the charge difference between the ends and that boosted the voltage. This is one great way they figured out to make this more powerful. And the other idea they had was to stack these single-layer films of the virus and like 20 different layers I think; they determined that 20 layers was optimum. And the other interesting thing, of course, with lots of things dealing with nanotechnology or things at that scale is that it was self-organising. So they just kind of had to just put the viruses in the proper environmental set-up and they would self-organise into these sheets. So then when they put all of these ideas together, they took the engineered viruses and they made them spontaneously organise into this multi-layered film. It was about as big as one square centimetre. And then they placed this film between two electrodes, which was connected to a liquid crystal display. And so when they applied pressure to this little square centimetre little device, it activated the piezoelectric effect in the viruses and it created a current of... let's see, it was... oh, it was 6 nano-amperes of current and 400 millivolts of potential and it flashed the number 1 on the display. And I think the voltage was roughly equivalent to a quarter of a AAA battery, so it's not entirely insignificant.

S: No, there's lots of—you know, as we develop more and more tiny devices, especially ones that might be implantable or wearable or whatever, the ability to produce a self-sustaining amount of very small current is really useful. It's not that we need a lot of current; it's just that you can't necessarily get to that device to replace or recharge the battery. So this—the potential uses for this are huge.

B: Well that's just it; what are we going to do with this kind of thing? But the really cool thing is that you could accumulate electrical charge from the vibrations that you generate just from everyday activities such as, say, charging your phone as you walk. You know, you put this little paper-thin generator in the sole of your shoe. You wouldn't even notice it, and as you're walking you're charging your cell phone. I really like the sound of that one. Things like walking up stairs or shutting a door, and I'm sure, a million other ways that you'd be able to generate energy.

S: Masturbating.

B: Hah, there you go.

E: Solves all of our energy problems.

S: (laughs) Right.

B: Oh yeah. So, keep an eye out for viral electronics in the future. I think it's going to be a fun thing to watch.

S: Viral electronics.

J: And they're only five years away.

S: (laughs)

B: Yeah, right.

E: Viral electronics. Catch it while you can.

UK Libel Law Update (23:13)[edit]

S: OK, well, let's move on. Rebecca, you're going to give us a quick update on libel reform in the UK.

B: Yay!

R: There's very exciting news. We haven't talked about this for a while because there hasn't really been a whole lot of forward movement on it. And in fact, the past few years of the fight for libel reform in the UK has been two steps forward, one—sometimes two steps back. So just to catch everyone up, you know, we've spoken about libel reform in the past on the show, particularly as it relates to science writers like Simon Singh, who criticised the British Chiropractic Association several years ago in an article. They sued him for libel in the UK. The problem is that in the UK it's very, very expensive to defend yourself against a libel case and the burden of proof is on you; you're guilty until proven innocent. It's more expensive than anywhere else in the world and you don't actually have to live in the UK to sue for libel or to be sued for libel. If someone in the UK reads your blog post, that's considered good enough reason to be sued there. So there's—that's just a really brief overview of some of the problems with the current libel laws in the UK. You can learn more if you'd like by going to But the great news is that after years of scientists and writers and other people petitioning the UK government to reform their libel laws, finally on May 9th, during the Queen's speech, it was revealed that the government will, in fact, be reforming the libel law this year. The Queen's speech is the opening for Parliament; it usually happens at the end of the year but they've just moved it for the first time this year, so from now, on it happens in May. And they open Parliament by having the Queen read out this list of all the things they're planning to tackle this year, and that was one of them. And sure enough, just a few days later, on the next Friday, they introduced a bill that will, in fact, reform libel law and it's got a lot of support behind it and everybody is optimistic that at last they're going to fix that. So, science writers particularly, around the world and skeptics around the world can breathe a sigh of relief soon because they'll be able to use scientific facts to criticize people like Andrew Wakefield, who is another one who has used the libel laws to his advantage, without being afraid of being completely bankrupted in British courts.

S: Phil, have you ever been sued for anything you've blogged?

PP: No; makes me kind of sad.

R: Yeah, you need to get on that.

PP: I've been threatened a few times.

S: Yeah.

PP: But, you know, in America, happily, the truth is a decent legal argument. But it would still tie me up in knots for months if somebody did, so I'm hoping that won't happen.

R: Well yeah, and it was only just last year that the United States, I believe, passed a federal law that prevents American citizens from being sued in UK courts. But before that there actually have been several American writers who have been sued in UK courts and it's been quite disastrous for them.

PP: Yeah; how screwed up is your legal system when the American legal system looks over at you and goes, "dude... dude."

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah, and in fact that law was, I think, a really great push because it was very embarrassing. It was very embarrassing for them to see other countries, particularly the US, actually enacting laws to protect their citizens from British law, so... Yeah, I think that was a huge wake-up call for British politicians.

S: All right. Well, it's good news and we'll see what actually comes from that intuitive.

Who's That Noisy? (27:24)[edit]

Answer to last week: a Wilsford flute, sounding as if it were played within the walls of Stonehenge

S: All right. Well, Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy.

E: All right. Last week we played a noisy and we're going to repeat it this week. Here we go. Who's That Noisy?

(flute sound)

S: Is it some kind of flute?

E: It is, it is. It is, in fact, something called the Wilsford Flute, which was found near Stonehenge and actually dates to about the same period as Stonehenge itself.

PP: Was the flute 18 feet high?

E: (laughs) Not quite; not quite that big. But this particular flute that was played was reconstructed by an archaeologist, Dr. Simon Wyatt and... well, he's got a—he's got an interesting theory in that Stonehenge itself—the design behind Stonehenge might have been inspired by musical sounds, specifically the flute sound. He's been able to show how two flutes played in a field can produce an auditory illusion that mimics in space the position of the henge's pillars.

S: I don't even know what that means. An auditory illusion of a three-dimensional structure?

PP: It scans up and down the flute frequencies and picks out...

S: (laughs) It's a ghost flute.

PP: ...the ghost flute.

E: That's right. All right. He said his theory is that the ancient Britons, when they were hearing two pipers in a field, were experiencing sound wave interference patterns where in certain locations you walked around the pair of pipers you'd hear loud zones and quiet zones and other things such as that.

S: Eh, it sounds far-fetched to me.

E: Yeah, he says if you look at Stonehenge from an overhead view, it would look like the spokes of a wheel and as you walk around the circle, every time you come to the sound wave cancellation points, it gives the illusion that there's this object sort of in front of you.

S: What about the astronomical connection of Stonehenge? I mean, Stonehenge is essentially a big stone calendar, right?

E: Yeah, well, that's the... you know, that certainly is the prevailing understanding of exactly the functionality of Stonehenge, but I thought it was interesting.

S: I don't know. All right. The guy—it's interesting; guy found a flute; let's not get crazy.

E: And had our listeners just read back a couple of months to a February 17th article[6] on the BBC they'd have been able to guess that this was the Who's That Noisy for last week.

S: There were no—nobody got it? Aaah.

E: However, there were no correct guesses, so.

S: All right. Well, what have you got for this week?

E: All right. So this week we have a theme. In the past we've played themes before of Who's That Noisy. What you're going to here are three voices; three people talking and it's up to the listener to determine what the theme of this week's Who's That Noisy is based on what these three people are saying, so here we go.

First voice: I know that I'm disliked as an historian; I know that I'm hated by some people.

Second voice: (speaking Arabic)

Third voice: I don't think I can actually make a good decision until I'm allowed to read and hear every point of view. How can we know the truth about any point of view?

E: How can we know the truth about any points of view?

S: All right. What do those three voices have in common?

E: That's right. So, come up with the answer and give it your best guess. and You can post your answer there on our forums. Good luck, everyone.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Corrections (31:03)[edit]

Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Bell Burnell

S: We're going to do a couple of emails this week; first, a quick correction. Last week I brought up—we were talking about women in science who got screwed out of getting credit for their discoveries and I brought up Jocelyn Bell Burnell, but actually I confused her with Rosalind Franklin. So the women who used X-ray crystallography in order to help discern the three-dimensional structure of DNA was Rosalind Franklin and she did not get—she did not share the Nobel Prize for that discovery with Watson and Crick because she died before the Nobel Prize was awarded. Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the woman who discovered pulsars and she did not get her Nobel because she got screwed.

E: What the hell? Phil?

S: Phil, do you have an explanation for that? Can you answer for the astronomical community?

E: Come on.

PP: Yeah, she's a chick.


S: That was it?

PP: We don't give Nobel Prizes to chicks.

R: Mmhmm. It's all you need.

PP: That's one of those—that's one of those stories—I hear the stories that she was denied because she was a woman and that's the way it was. I've also heard it's because she was a graduate student at the time and they typically give them to the leaders of the team. You know, I hear all these things and I don't know; I don't know what was going on then.

S: Yeah.

PP: But either way, you know, she made the discovery. (laughs) It really—it should really go to her. They gave it to Penzias and Wilson for discovering the background radiation of the universe... and the recent one in physics for the discovery of dark energy. Adam Reese was a graduate student at the time that he was figuring all this stuff out—how to calibrate distant exploding stars and then figure out that the universe expansion was accelerating. So you know, it seems a little inconsistent.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah; it seems like excuses get made because it's easier to do that than to say, "oh, we're a bunch of sexists." Not many people are going to really come out and say that.

S: Yeah, well, it could have been a combination of things and certainly the notion of a senior researcher taking credit for the work of their underlings is nothing new and doesn't require sexism, but that is an extra added element to that story.

SuperMoon (33:23)[edit]

S: OK. Let's go on to the next one. This one's just for you, Phil. Kieren from Australia writes this:

The "BBC News" thread had this on it "'Supermoon' graces the night sky" A "supermoon", bigger and brighter than usual, is seen in the night sky as it comes closer to the Earth - bringing with it the chance of higher tides. I commented "nonsense, it's an optical illusion when the moon is near other objects we associate as big, the moon does not have an elliptical orbit, it never gets bigger or get's closer." was I right? this is my understanding, that the moon can look small when it's way up in the sky with nothing but stars to look at it next to, but when it's right next to a massive silo our brain says "this is now much more massive than normal" if I'm wrong please correct me, it's the only way I learn.

R: Good attitude.

S: Phil, are you going to teach Kieren?

PP: That was an awesome way to end that question because that means that they'll be far more forgiving when I say, "yeah, you're wrong."

S: Yeah.

PP: This is actually fairly complicated. There are bits and pieces of this are correct and incorrect all kind of mixed together. So every now and again, we have what's called a "supermoon". Now this is a ridiculous term; I don't like it; it was invented by an astrologer. If that's an ad hominem, fine. I don't care. The idea is, in fact, the moon does orbit the earth on an ellipse and it can be substantially closer at times than others. Now I'm not—not like half as close or anything, it's percents. But there are times when it's closer to the Earth than others, and we call that perigee when it's closer and apogee when it's farther away. If there's a full moon around the time of perigee, then that's what we're calling a supermoon and what it means is the Moon is full, so it's brighter when it's closer to the Earth. And since it's closer to the Earth, it'll look a little bit bigger and a little bit brighter. The question is how much? And the answer is "not a whole lot and certainly not much more than the day before", so it's not like if you go see the moon on the 12th and it looks normal and you go out the 13th and it's the supermoon, "it's ten times bigger, we're going to fall into it!" It's nothing like that. What's worse is all this hubbub about the supermoon that we had a couple of weeks ago. Just last month in April, the Moon was also full; very near perigee. So, where were the headlines? Where was the news about this? Nobody noticed, and I think the reason nobody noticed is because nobody told them to notice. So I'm not a big proponent of this supermoon being that noticeably bigger and brighter.

Now the second part of this is what's called "the moon illusion", and that's where the moon looks really huge but it isn't any bigger than usual. When the moon is rising on the horizon, it can look very big, and this has been tested extensively. And there are people who say that it looks twice or even three times bigger than it normally does when it's up high in the sky. I've seen this many many times; it's a very convincing illusion. And a lot of people say it's because the Earth's atmosphere is magnifying the moon, or you're comparing it to nearby objects, buildings and trees; when it's up high in the sky it's all alone and so you're not comparing it to that. It turns out that's not correct. There are a lot of reasons we know that's not correct; for example, the moon illusion persists when you're out on a boat in the ocean or if you're in the middle of Kansas with a flat horizon. It has nothing to do with foreground objects. What it turns out is that we don't perceive the sky as being a hemisphere—this is weird but it's critical. If you think about clouds that are overhead, they're maybe 2 or 3 miles up. Now look at a cloud on the horizon—it might be 100 miles away. Well, that's how we perceive the sky; the sky is very flattened to our perception. And so when something is on the horizon, our brain interprets it as being far away; when it's up higher in the sky our brain interprets it as being nearer. Since the moon's size isn't changing—OK, wrap your head around this—since it's not changing, it is physically the same size up high in the sky and near the horizon, so your brain interprets it as being physically huge. If it looks big but it's really far away it must be overwhelmingly ginormous. But when it's up high in the sky, it looks like it's closer and your brain just interprets it as being normal. It's these two effects—and this is actually fairly well determined, at least in my opinion; I've read a lot of papers about it. And I think that's what really causing the moon illusion, not that you're comparing it to foreground objects or anything like that.

S: All right, well let's go on with our interview.

Interview with Chris Lewicki (37:55)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Chris Lewicki. Chris, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

C: Why, thank you.

S: And Chris is the president and chief engineer of a new company, Planetary Resources, but also the former space grant intern and formerly JPL's flight director for the Mars exploration rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander.

B: Holy crap.

S: So Chris, we're having you on the show—it actually came to our attention through a couple of blog posts that Phil Plait wrote about you. What's the idea behind this venture?

C: Well, the general idea is that we've come to a time and place in the development of technology and our history in space exploration and our knowledge places out in place, including the near-earth asteroids, that my founders and myself and my team all think that it's time that we start to try and develop that area and make a business around it and align a team and get them perusing space resources.

S: So, not to get too quickly to the punch line, but the ultimate goal, it sounds like, is to start mining asteroids. But you apparently have a plan on how to get there. So, tell us about how you're going to get to the point where you're mining asteroids.

C: Well, to even actually take it beyond mining asteroids, the vision of the company and the vision that we all shared when we signed up was really identifying those ways that we can develop space and explore space that extends our human activities and our business and our economic sphere of influence off the surface of the planet, off geostationary orbit and out into the solar system. And we feel that a critical way of doing that is the resources that are out there in space, whether we use those resources to help explore the rest of space, or whether we use those resources to develop facilities and capabilities in space, and maybe even eventually bring some of those resources back for use on Earth.

S: So yeah. It sounds like you want to—the goal here—the concept is that in order for mankind to really have a permanent presence in space, there has to be some financial or economic angle to it.

C: Yeah, it uh—

S: Is that the goal?

C: Precisely; it has to be self-sustaining is a good way to describe it. If we had settled the Americas by constantly receiving shipments from Europe, our duration of our stay on the continent here would not have lasted that long. And, of course, what we learned to do and pioneers on the frontiers was to live off the land and this is just the 2012 version of that. And it's a little bit more technically advanced, but it's the same general concept.

S: You think we'll be able to find all the resources we need in space, specifically among asteroids?

C: Um, I don't know if it may, in the long run, be all of the resources, every last one of them, but certainly the majority of what we need to live and conduct operations and sustain ourselves in space, we find on the asteroids, the near-Earth asteroids, potentially the surface and the poles of the moon and maybe even the surface of Mars one day.

S: The asteroids, too, can have a lot of volatiles like water and oxygen. Those are obviously the two biggest resources that humans would need if we were going to have any prolonged presence in space.

C: Yeah, certainly the volatiles of carbonaceous asteroids in particular, starting with what everyone knows, is water; the essence of life, really. Water is useful for so many things, you know, beyond just drinking and growing plants and hydration; it's a critical part of various industrial processes where we use it to create solutions and process things. We can use it from a human exploration standpoint, as radiation shielding, just because of the mass that it provides and the dampening capability it has for cosmic rays and the like. If you want to get a little bit more complicated than just using straight water that you could potentially distill off of a near-Earth asteroid, you can electrolyse water into its hydrogen and oxygen components and then you have something to breathe and a fuel to burn and hydrogen and oxygen, of course, are the components that make up the rocket fuel that propelled the Shuttle for so many years. And we can use those same components for propellant in space. And beyond the water, there are other volatiles on asteroids that are useful for a number of different chemical and industrial processes and other techniques, ammonia and nitrogen. Nitrogen is very rare in the solar system; things like carbon dioxide and even carbon in some forms is considered a volatile. These things are relatively plentiful on carbonaceous asteroids and the real benefit of them isn't that they are things that are rare here on Earth, but there are things that if we don't have to ship them into space and pay the shipping expense, so to speak, it's a lot easier to use them where we find them.

S: Yeah, so obviously, it would be pointless to go into outer space just to get water and then bring it back down to Earth.

C: Yeah, water would be interesting to bring it back down to Earth to study it, but certainly no commercial interest.

S: But are you saying that it could become cheaper to get water from asteroids to use on, say, a space station like the International Space Station, than it is to bring water from the Earth to the space station?

C: Yeah, absolutely. If you consider the least expensive capability that we have to launch any payload, whether that's water or a block of aluminium or a complicated space ship, you pay by the kilogram, and a litre of water is a kilogram and to take that litre of water and send it to the space station is, on the cheapest launch vehicle today, if you filled the entire thing up is over $5000 a kilogram. If you wanted to send that water out to the orbit of the Moon, for example, that price more than quadruples, to you know, more than $20000 for a litre of water. And to be able to get water en masse from a near-Earth asteroid and bring it back, it's a lot easier to ship it in space, because you don't need as much rocket propellant since you're not escaping the gravity of the Earth. And that's where the real benefit of space resources lie, and even in the case where it becomes cheaper to launch it off the surface of the Earth, what that really means it's even cheaper then to send the things out to the asteroid to go back and bring the water back. So it's really kind of an amplification ratio of, you know, every little bit of mass that you can send into space, you can leverage that to return a bunch more back to the various points of use, for water as an example.

J: Hey, Chris, I think a lot of people would thing that we're far away from having the technology for this type of space exploration, you know, asteroid mining. How close are we, actually—what technologies are your company developing or purchasing and how long until we get there?

C: So you know, certainly, everything is science fiction right up to the point that someone figures out how to do it and it becomes a science fact. And the course that we're charting with Planetary Resources is trying to do something, as one of our investors, Larry Page, says, is maintaining a healthy disrespect for the impossible. Asteroid mining has not yet been demonstrated to be possible and our plan that we're working through aims to change that. And for us, it starts with decreasing the cost that it takes to actually go out and explore space with robotic spacecraft and to use what we learn from those robotic spacecraft to take the next step on how to develop the resources on the asteroids, how to extract them and how to deliver them to a point where there's a market for them. So what we're doing today is developing our core technology with the Arkyd 100 series of space craft. And the Arkyd 100 is a design of a spacecraft that we—if we had that spacecraft at the asteroid in orbit around it, we would be able to use it to learn about enough of the asteroid's properties to assess its value. But we don't put everything on that spacecraft that would be needed; it doesn't have the propulsion, for example; it doesn't have the deep-space communications. But in the Internet view of development, it's our first opportunity to learn how to make a really low-cost, innovative, better spacecraft and do it for really cheap. So we will use that core technology in Earth orbit as a space telescope. And that space telescope will be available to kind of a new class of users that aren't a circle of a limited audience in the scientific community that are using it for an extremely specific purpose, but this is something that we hope to make a use of a remote sensing platform in space more commonplace; something that maybe even college students and high-school students and grade-school students could experience as a part of their education. Maybe we could make it even that commonplace.

B: Hey Chris, you're targeting just near-Earth asteroids, correct?

C: That's correct.

B: What's the population—the current estimate of the population of near earth asteroids that you think you'd have access to?

C: The current population of near-Earth objects, if you go and look at the Minor Planet Center's website, is 8,898 objects. And these are not necessarily all asteroids, but they primarily are and they are near-Earth because they have an orbit that crosses near a particular defined vicinity of Earth. So this is the number, by the end of next summer, it'll be crossing 10,000 and it's really about doubled in only the past six or seven years. And for Planetary Resources, the thing that has changed in our knowledge about the asteroids is not necessarily the number of the ones that are classified as near-Earth but if you consider the fraction that are really close to us, that are very easy to get to from an energy standpoint, there's over 1500 of those objects today that are actually as easy to get to as it is to land on the surface of the Moon, and some of them even easier. And it's the energy that is really the most important in terms of being able to collect material from an asteroid, to potentially get that material back to Earth. And in the near term, what's most important for Planetary Resources is that it's very easy—it's on the easiest end of the scale to make a spacecraft that is able to make that trip out to the asteroid to study it in the first place.

S: Chris, so it sounds like what you're saying is the more we could access in space, the easier it will be for people to then exist in space. But also, the more people there are in space, then you'll have somebody to use those resources. So it sounds like you're trying to just bootstrap that whole process a little bit.

C: Yeah, it's... you know, how do you create an economy from scratch? And that economy today extends out to geostationary orbit and the government has part of that economy that makes occasional visits out to the planets and other interesting places in between. And it's just gotten to a point where the capability to build the spacecraft and to do it at a cost that can be considered privately or commercially is something that we are actually at today and we're just charting the course on how we can best navigate that space to develop this area to continue to grow that economy in the future.

S: You said before that you would want to put like a telescope in orbit near or around an asteroid to evaluate if it had anything valuable. So are there asteroids that would not be worth it for you to mine, like just a regular nickel/iron asteroid; would that not be worth it?

C: Well, it's a matter of what steps we're prepared to take from a resource extraction and development standpoint. The resources of a carbonaceous asteroid are conceptually among the easiest to extract, because it could be something as simple as a solar collector and a reflector and a simple distillation process whereby you melt and evaporate water and condense it into a storage vessel. And of course, conceptually that's rather simple; the implementation details, of course, are always a bit more difficult. But to consider that problem is a much easier problem to start with than trying to figure out how to extract iron, for example, from a metallic asteroid. So our first targets that are of most interest are of course the easiest ones to develop and the ones that have the highest payout for the resource itself and that's our interest in water in space.

B: Chris, regarding the volatiles on the near-Earth asteroids, wouldn't the sun have vaporised a lot of them off of the asteroid?

C: Actually not. One of the most fascinating things in the space environment and what goes on in physics and chemistry of the solar system is the asteroid kind of after a while—and comets may actually be this case as well—they end up being self-insulating. So you do boil off and evaporate a percentage of the exterior of an asteroid after a certain amount of time, but what you leave behind in solid material is an excellent insulator. And this is all things that have been lightly tested; probably the Deep Impact mission might be the one that has provided the best direct data for this in understanding what the bulk properties of a near-Earth object might be, but you have this self-insulating thing that could be just a meter below or so that exterior crust—if you want to call it that, it may not be a hard crust—are materials that are as high as 20% by the weight in water.

S: But are you hoping that you're going to find an asteroid that's essentially a huge chunk of platinum or something? Would that be the most valuable kind of find?

C: (laughs) Well, it's probably not the case that it's a huge chunk of platinum. This is something that we actually know fairly well from meteoritic science. The near-Earth asteroids that end up on the surface of the Earth are the meteorites and the things that we see streaking through the night sky. And laboratory tests have revealed that certain types of meteorites have a very high concentration of platinum-group metals. And by "very high", we're talking about, still, parts per million. So I think the highest is on the order of 200 parts per million, which as it happens, is still more than 20 times as concentrated as the most productive platinum mines on Earth. And when you consider just the massive amount of material that exists in a large object, say a 500 meter asteroid, that still, at 200 parts per million, is a lot of platinum. And this relates to, in the long term, when you become more of a master of space exploration and the extraction of space resources, especially enabled by the development of the fuel source that you can get from carbonaceous asteroids, you then have a capability which you can turn to the development of resources like platinum-group metals, even in those quantities that I'm talking about. All that—all those other technologies have to precede it before it might be economically viable to return things like platinum-group metals back to the Earth.

B: How would you get vast quantities of a metal back to Earth; what's the plan on actually doing that?

C: There's a number of options, and this is an area that actually NASA is actively researching, in terms of advanced re-entry technologies, getting things back to the surface of the Earth. We, of course, know a number of ways to come back in terms of re-entry capsules and Space Shuttle and the military is working on winged aircraft that are in orbit right now. And then the office of the chief technologist has recently funded work in inflatable re-entry shields that are much lower mass and can be deployed to precisely, you know, maybe in that particular application, bring humans back to a precise landing location. And you know, the time-line that we're talking about returning the material back to the Earth will allow us plenty of time to perfect and develop the most appropriate technologies to bringing back significant quantities of metal to a terrestrial market.

PP: One of the things that I didn't ask you before when I actually interviewed you for the blog was specifically the technique used to mine these asteroids to get out the volatiles like water and air and eventually the metals.

C: Yeah, I can speak a little bit more to that in terms of a number of concepts. What I'll speak to first, though, is getting out and doing the prospecting activity, starting with our Arkyd 100-series space telescopes and getting out to the Arkyd 300 prospecting capability. We realised that we needed a capability to visit asteroids, get out to their native environment, where they're at—to be able to essentially do that development work that will allow us to develop the best process for extracting any given resource. And at the cost of the way that we're doing it right now and what it typically costs within the government, these are on the order of a billion dollar proposition. And, of course, that is not necessarily commercially viable. But to be able to visit an asteroid—a particular one repeatedly or a number of them—to develop a technology for extraction and recovery and storage and transport is probably going to require many visits and we need to be able to do that as economically as possible. So when we do that, we'll be able to do small-scale techniques in terms of demonstrating touching down on the surface of an asteroid, demonstrating technologies for staying on the surface with the manner of an anchor so to speak, to use a simple terminology for that, and how you can, in the case of extracting volatiles, how you can use solar concentrators or other techniques to do that. For small asteroids, and this is something that was studied in the Keck Institute of Space Studies, move an asteroid study which myself and our advisor, Dr. Tom Jones, participated in. What was considered there was cosying up to a relatively small near-Earth asteroid, about 7 meters or so across—you know, not very big at all but still something that weighs hundreds of thousands of kilograms. That's something that you could envelop with a material to essentially be a vapour barrier and you can slowly heat up the entire object and through evaporation and condensation, using both the solar energy from the sun and the cold sink of the rest of the 3 Kelvin sky, you can work a process where you might not be able to extract 100% of the volatiles, but you can get a fair recovery in terms of something as simple as water. Now, when you get into, for example, separating platinum-group metals from the matrix that they're in and the rest of the asteroid, that requires much more exotic techniques and there's a number of concepts there that have been discussed over time that we'll, of course, have to consider and develop but that really is work that will require a detailed understanding of the asteroid itself and that's been our primary focus today.

S: Well Chris, it's really—this is very interesting. We're definitely going to want to keep track of how you guys do. Is there anything that we didn't ask you about that you really want to talk about?

C: You know, we certainly appreciate that what we're trying to do is audacious and it's something that is a very hard task and we expect that we're going to stumble along the way in terms of figuring that out. But we feel that it's important enough to develop this area and important enough to do it in a way that sustains itself that we as a company are committed to doing that and are going to use the best resources that we have available to us, both in terms of who we have working here in the company and the other opportunities of the other exciting businesses that have similar goals in space and similar goals here on the planet, is just to kind of move all areas of humanity forward in all the ways that we have opportunities to do and it's great work if you can get it. I enjoy it tremendously.

S: Yeah, it sounds exciting. You know, I mean, seriously, it doesn't sound like you're over selling it; you're acknowledging that there are a lot of unknowns; it's going to be very difficult; you have—you're just figuring your way as you're going along, but it sounds like you have a pretty reasonable plan for how to go forward.

C: It just might work.

S: It just might work. Well, hopefully, we'll be able to get you back on the show sometime in the future when you guys hit pay dirt.

J: (laughs)

C: Certainly.

S: (laughs)

B: Pay platinum. Pay platinum.

S: Pay platinum? All right. Thanks a lot, Chris.

J: Thanks, Chris.

B: Thanks, Chris.

R: Thanks.

E: Thank you, Chris.

Science or Fiction (1:00:09)[edit]

Iszi Lawrence: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics (and Phil) to sniff out the fake. And you all can play along at home. We have a theme this week because I couldn't find jack for news items this week. So I had to go to a theme. The theme is—this is about, actually, a very interesting character that I've been interested in for a while: Florence Nightingale.

PP: She was the mother on Brady Bunch, right?

S: That's right. So see how much you guys know about Florence Nightingale. All right, here we go. Item number one: In 1860 Florence Nightingale founded the first secular nursing school, essentially establishing the modern nursing profession. Item number two: An early believer in the benefits of sanitation, Nightingale's policies during the Crimean War quickly dropped the death rate in British Army hospitals from a high of 42% to as low as 2.2%. And item number three: Nightingale suffered from a mystery [chronic] illness and lived as an invalid from 1857 to the end of her life in 1910 at the age of 90. Phil, as our guest, you get to go first this week.

PP: All right! So, let's see; we've got her establishing a secular nursing school. And I've got to say I know very little about Florence Nightingale except they named a bird after her, so um... that may not be true.

E: "Florence"?

PP: So if you'd said that, I'd probably say that one's the fake one. But the establishing the modern nursing profession sounds legit. "An early believer in sanitation". I'm not really buying that she dropped the death rate that much. And the chronic illness is just a coin flip for me. So I'm going to say number two is the fiction.

S: The, uh, the sanitation.

PP: Yeah.

S: OK. Bob?

B: First secular nursing school. Yeah, I mean, I can't think of anything out of whack with that one. The third one, the mystery chronic illness. I mean, that is a hell of a long chronic illness, from 1857 to 1910. Wow. Yeah, that one. That's possible; sure, like Phil said, a coin flip. It's the second one that I'm having trouble swallowing. That's such a huge drop; 42% to 2.2% and you say here "British Army hospitals", so multiple hospitals. I would think that they just could not ignore that kind of a drop and just kind of like abandon it, if they even did. Yeah, I'll have to go—I'm going to go—I'm going to do a G.W.P. here and I'll go with Phil. It just seems like too much of a drop, because I think that would have been too early—you know, far too early in—you know, the benefits of sanitation. So yeah, I'll say that one's fake. Dammit.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: Yeah, that's the... I do know that Nightingale was a huge proponent of sanitation, and that she did have some huge successes, I think, in her life with establishing sort of sanitation routines in her hospitals. But yeah, that's a huge—that's a big drop. And also I'm not sure that she would have been able to institute all those policies during the Crimean War. I guess what I'm stuck on is whether or not she would have been that in control of that many hospitals in order to create that kind of drastic difference and be credited with it, even if that drop did happen, which I'm not convinced it did because it's a huge drop. So yeah, I'm going to have to go with that one as well as being the fiction.

S: OK. Evan?

E: Well, I'll agree. I think perhaps the issue with the Crimean War one is that she probably did have some kind of effect; maybe it wasn't as dramatic as it says here, but was more like it was a piece of the puzzle, not the only reason or even the primary reason; I'll bet you there were other reasons for it as well; other people of less notoriety working on the same issues, perhaps, because this was a pretty significant war. Whereas the other ones—the first secular nursing school, establishing the modern nursing profession. I seem to recall this somewhere; I can't exactly say where; somewhere in my reading over the last 20 years or so. And then the chronic illness that she suffered from—a mystery chronic illness. See, I don't see any issue with that; I have no reason to think that that one would be fiction. It seems pretty straight-forward; I'll have to go with the crowd.

S: And Jay.

J: So I'm it, hey? Well, everyone had something intelligent to say. I think it makes a lot of sense to say that 2 is fake because, you know, 42% down to a 2.2% drop is so dramatically significant. I'm going to go with the group and say that that's the fake.

S: OK. So you all agree on number 2 so we'll take these in order, I guess. We'll start with number one. In 1860 Florence Nightingale founded the first secular nursing school, essentially establishing the modern nursing profession. You guys all think this one is science, and this one is... science. That is absolutely true. She really did—I remember growing up, you hear the name Florence Nightingale; it's like iconic, but I always heard and just thought of her as just a particularly compassionate nurse, when in fact, she really established the modern nursing profession in terms of a lot of the... not only the role of nurses but the discipline and the dedication to the quality of care and the quality of life of their patients and sanitation, cleanliness, nutrition; you know, a lot of things. She was a massive advocate for proper nursing. Prior to her, you know, it really wasn't a profession like it is today. It was more run by churches and religious institutions and they were female volunteers who just helped. Not that there wasn't any knowledge before her, but I mean, she really did bring it together into a profession. Let's go on to number two: an early believer in the benefits of sanitation, Nightingale's policies during the Crimean War quickly dropped the death rate in British Army hospitals from a high of 42% to as low as 2.2%. You guys all think this one is the fiction. Let me first say that everything you said about this item is wrong.

R: That means we got it right.

B: Yeah, it does.

S: But it's still the fiction.

B: Yay!

E: All right!

J: Sweet!

S: This is the most massively you have all been correct for the wrong reasons. And I—this is what I suspected was going to happen. I debated with myself whether to put the actual percentages in there...

J: Uh huh.

B: Come on.

S: Because it kind of made it easy. There is actually a belief—and you will read this on a lot of sites—that Nightingale dropped the death rate in British Army hospitals from 42% to 2% and those figures are correct. They did drop during the Crimean War from a high of 42% to as low as 2.2%, but Nightingale doesn't get the credit for that. Although a lot of people do give it to her only because she's the most famous person associated with the British Army hospitals during that war. And Rebecca, she absolutely did have the authority to dramatically control—and essentially, the Secretary of War, who was a personal friend of hers, said "you can do whatever you want; you have any resources you want; you're in charge". And she really had a tremendous amount of authority. It's questionable how much credit she should get for the drop, but here's the sequence of events that occurred: When Nightingale brought her little army of nurses into the hospitals in the Crimean War, the British Army hospitals, the conditions were deplorable. The soldiers were in their own—in their uniforms; they did not have clean clothes or hospital clothes to wear. Their nutrition was horrible; they had really no good food to eat; no fresh water; they were not being cleaned; their wounds were dirty; they were really completely scandalous and deplorable conditions. And Nightingale immediately became an advocate for massively changing the conditions, and she did have a huge effect and instituted a nutrition program and a laundry and a lot of basic things that you associate with a modern hospital she initiated. But the one thing she—although she advocated for cleanliness, she didn't think that the high death rate among the soldiers was due to—

B: Oh no.

S: —was due to infection; she thought it was due to poor nutrition. In fact, after she and her nurses started working at the hospitals, the death rate went up, although that had nothing to do with her; that had to do with just the war progressing and the hospitals getting overwhelmed and then epidemics started to break out, of Cholera and Typhoid, etc. Then the army did bring in a sanitation unit and measures to increase the sanitation in the hospitals and the death rate dropped from a high of 42% to around 2%, which is dramatic and incredible. And certainly Nightingale was—you know, her advocacy was probably part of that, but that wasn't really—she refused to take credit for it because she really didn't do it. And the death rate didn't drop just because of her policies; it actually was increasing after what she was doing. But again, not as a result of it; just that was kind of incidental. But that myth is repeated in many online histories of Nightingale; that the death rate plummeted as a direct result of her ministrations, where in fact, she—it was after she returned to England from the Crimean War, and she looked over her statistics, because she kept really good records, did she see the connection to infection and sanitation. And this is around the same time that Ignaz Semmelweis was advocating for sanitation in hospitals and showing that instituting hand washing, you know... physicians shouldn't be going from the morgue to the delivery room without washing their hands. Because that was literally what was happening. The death rates from hospital-acquired infections plummeted. And Nightingale later came to accept that as part of—as good hospital and nursing practice, but she was not an early believer in the benefits of sanitation; she learned that lesson after sort of looking over the statistics that she had gathered during the Crimean War. I figured that's what—those numbers would be so dramatic that that would make you think that the item was fiction but for the wrong reason.

Anyway, let's move on to number three: Nightingale suffered from a mystery chronic illness and lived as an invalid from 1857 to the end of her life in 1910 at the age of 90. That one is science. There's—I could not find any definitive answer as to what the illness was; there are some historians speculate, in fact, that it was psychosomatic. Others have speculated that she was faking it deliberately just as a way of gaining privacy because she was already famous at that point in time and she wanted to work and write her books and she didn't want to be bothered by people, so she kind of used it as a way of titrating her own visitors and keeping the public at bay.

R: I had no idea that you could titrate people.

S: Yeah, sure. She could choose who to see and who not to see and just would blame her illness whenever she didn't want to see somebody. But she also might have—in the 1800s, could have had some chronic illness; who knows, that made life miserable for her. A very humble person, by reports; it's hard to know how much of this is really historically accurate, but multiple reports that I read indicated that while during the Crimean War, which is really where she became famous, that she was working 20-hour days. That just really her work ethic was incredible. She—do you know what her nickname was during that time?

J: Worky McWorkerson.

E: (laughs)

PP: All day and Nightingale.

S: Oh that's pretty good!

E: Nice, Phil!

J: That's good Phil, nice.

E: Not bad.

S: Good one.

E: Not bad.

S: No. The Lady of the Lamp, because she would make her evening rounds with a lamp.

R: Oh yeah.

PP: Oh right.

S: That became her sort of symbol.

J: Was it a lava lamp?

S: No, it was probably a torch lamp, you know.

E: Whale oil.

S: Yeah. You know, a really very interesting historical figure; had a profound effect—again, I don't—I don't really think that most people know what a profound effect she had on nursing. They know she's a famous nurse but didn't realise what she actually accomplished during her lifetime was actually amazing.

E: She's rolling over in her grave about that whole "therapeutic touch" thing.

S: Oh my god. You could hope. But good job, everyone; you guys came to the right answer.

R: Thank you. That's what really matters.

PP: That may be the first time I got it right.

B: Hah.

PP: Oh, whenever I'm on to do this I get it wrong. I don't know, I can't remember.

E: All right, then, it's the first time.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:03)[edit]

S: All right. Jay, you got a quote for us?

J: All right. I've got a quote from a man named Benjamin Graham, and the quote was sent in by a listener named Holly from Minnesota. Thanks for the quote, Holly. And the quote is:

You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.

J: Benjamin Graham!

E: Inventor of delicious crackers[7].

J: Influential economist and professional investor, Graham is considered the first proponent of value investing, which means, you know, you want to earn money, so you buy things of value.

S: Hmm, really? Someone had to come up with that?

PP: Wow.

R: Good description.

E: (laughs)

S: OK.

B: Someone's got to be the first.

Announcements (1:14:44)[edit]

R: Steve, a quick announcement. Because we've recorded so many shows leading up to and during NECSS, we missed what I originally said would be the deadline for the magnetic poetry contest, so let's extend it to June 1st.

S: June 1st.

R: If anyone wants to send in a work of art using their magnet—their word magnets for skeptics, which you can get on, you can still send that to us through our email: And the winner will get a T-shirt.

S: Phil, what have you got coming up?

PP: I'm giving a bunch of public talks, and I'll be putting those up on the blog. Dragon*Con for sure, probably Comic-Con. And you know, I'll throw in a plug. My wife and I have started a company called Science Getaways, and you can find that at, where we are taking vacation packages and adding... science! So our first one is in September and it's going to be at a luxury ranch, basically, in the Rocky Mountains. And it's going to be—it's a dude ranch.

J: Dude!

E: (laughs)

PP: All inclusive dude ranch. But yeah, it's great. Think City Slickers except totally different. And we'll have a geologist, a biologist and me. So we'll be having some talks and then hikes and star-gazing and all kinds of stuff. It's going to be awesome.

S: Cool!

PP: I've been out to this place and it's beautiful and the food is fantastic.

S: And if there's anyone out there who doesn't know, Phil writes a very popular blog called Bad Astronomy; you can find him at[8] and is a frequent flyer among several podcasts, including Big Picture Science; you're on there once a month with Seth, who was just on our show recently; great guy.

PP: No way, yeah.

S: And occasionally you'll find him on the Skeptics' Guide podcast. Every now and then. Occasionally.


S: Well, Phil, thanks so much for joining us this week.

PP: It was great as always. Thanks to all you guys.

R: Thanks, Phil.

B: Thanks, Phil.

E: Thank you, doctor.

R: Thanks, Steve.

S: Thank you, and may I thank the rest of you for joining me as well.

E: Thank you, Steve.

J: Doctor.

S: Doctor.

E: Doctor, doctor.

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

Voice-over: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.


  1. Futurama Wiki: Heads in Jars
  2. Doctor Who Wiki: Order of the Headless
  3. IMDb: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  4. Technorati: Ghost Box Paranormal Tool Reveals Compelling Ghost Evidence
  5. Shakespeare Online: Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2
  6. BBC News: Stonehenge 'inspired by flute sound'
  7. Transcriber note: Sylvester Graham, actually
  8. Transcriber note: Now located at
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