SGU Episode 797

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SGU Episode 797
October 17th 2020
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 796                      SGU 798

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


BW: Brian Wecht

PT: Paul Thibado[1]

Quote of the Week

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

George Box, British statistician

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, October 14th, 2020, and this is your host, Stephen Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Evening folks.

S: ...and we have a special guest this week, Brian Wecht. Brian, welcome back to the Skeptic's Guide.

BW: Hi, thanks so much for having me back.

S: So Brian, tell us how you went from being a physicist to a rock star.

BW: Yeah, so I was a career academic, did the whole grad school, post-doc, faculty route, and in the middle of actually in grad school I started performing at improv clubs in San Diego. I went to UCSD and kind of started this whole side career as a comedian and musician. I have an undergraduate degree in music and when I was a post-doc in theoretical physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and I started collaborating on this kind of two-man comedy music act with a guy I met and it became a legit thing and cut to, I don't know, what it was, four, five years later. We had a big enough following that I could quit my job as a professor in London. I was at Queen Mary University in their Center for Research in String Theory and kind of transitioned to doing music and comedy full-time.

E: Wow.

S: So you're like, oh, these guys are nerds, I'm going to do that other thing, that music thing that I like.

BW: Yeah, it was, I mean, it was really just that I had a fun kind of thing on the side that started taking up more and more and more time and so around, let's say in 2014, my daughter was born and I didn't have enough time to be a dad and a researcher and a teacher and a ninja.

S: So one thing had to go and you weren't going to get rid of your daughter.

BW: You know what, I've said that exact same thing, yes.

J: Brian, I remember talking to you, it was very near when you made the decision and I remember hearing in your voice that this was not an insanely safe jump. You took a little leap of faith because you wanted to go do this thing, right?

BW: Yeah, it was terrifying. I mean, because from my perspective, I'd worked for, depending on how you count, close to 20 years to get this permanent faculty job in physics and I was rolling the dice on moving to Los Angeles, where my partner Dan was, to do this thing. The trends were moving in the right direction, but it was far from clear that it would actually make enough money to live off of. It seemed like a calculated risk, but a big risk. I told the other faculty members at Queen Mary that I was going to leave. I timed it wrong because I told them on April Fool's Day, which was in retrospect, a stupid idea.

C: Did you tell them why you were leaving to join Ninja Sex Party full-time on April Fool's Day?

BW: I told them that I was going to go work at a YouTube channel. Some of the older people were like, what's a YouTube channel? They'd heard of YouTube, but they didn't know it had channels. Reactions ranged from, especially the older people, people who were 60-ish and up, were very, very confused by what any of that even meant. The people who were closer to my age, which was early to mid-40s, were like, I wish, yeah, that sounds nice. I could use a change of pace.

S: Just to reinforce, your band is Ninja Sex Party, right?

BW: Ninja Sex Party.

S: I always wanted to say Teenage Ninja Sex Party.

BW: Yeah, sometimes we get Ninja Sex Turtles people.

S: That's in our brains. It's hard to get that out there. You have a new album coming out, right?

BW: Yes, we have an album that came out. This is going up on Saturday, the 17th, is that right? Our album came out yesterday, Friday the 16th.

E: Oh, wow.

J: Congratulations.

C: Very cool.

BW: Thanks. It's our fifth original album, our eighth album overall.

J: So, not to reveal anything, but we have been working with Brian and George on a secret project.

C: I have not heard of this.

B: It's a secret?

E: So much for that.

J: It is, yeah. We haven't really said anything about it.

C: Secret even from Cara.

J: That's true. I know. I guess it's unbelievable. I actually didn't tell someone a secret that I know.

BW: Wow. Congratulations.

S: I'm shocked, shocked!

B: Don't worry, Cara. I don't know what the hell he's talking about either.

J: Well, whatever. There's no reason why we can't say anything. What we're doing is we did a game show at NECSS, right? That was this Friday night. We decided, yeah, let's do something fun on Friday night. Okay. Well, this isn't an in-person conference. What could we do? And all of us, me, Steve, George, Brian, and Ian put our heads together. I'm like, we're going to do a game show. It seems like the most perfect thing for us, this collection of people that we had. And it turned out that we loved the game show. It was a lot of fun and the audience really liked it. We got incredible feedback. So we said, let's make this better by an order of magnitude. So we're working on that project right now.

BW: Trying to develop a cool online game show thing.

C: And it involves music?

J: Yeah, there'll be some music stuff, but not Brian sitting there being the only keyboardist in the band playing music. The music elements will be incorporated into the game as part of the quiz show.

BW: And of course, we have George part of it too. So far, any of the musical stuff, he's really handled the heavy lifting on. I mean, he's handled all of it.

S: Yeah, George Hrabb. He's the host, basically. If George gets to fulfill his lifelong dream to become a game show host.

C: Best dressed game show host out there, I have to say.

S: So we'll update everyone on that project as it comes to fruition. We're actually getting pretty close.

J: Brian, where can people go see you online?

BW: They can go to our YouTube channel, which is, there are a couple of ways of getting there. They can go to,, or I also bought the domain [] that they can go to.

J: I gotta see that one.

C: That's what you got to add an explicit rating to the episode.

BW: That's B-U-T-T-S-E-X dot info.

S: So before we go on to the news items, you might remember a few weeks ago, I said that I'm seeing a lot of wildlife in my backyard, but I haven't seen a coyote yet. But damn, if right within a week I saw a coyote in my backyard.

E: Chasing a road runner.

S: Middle of the day, broad daylight, right in my backyard, just strolling around, clearly a coyote. Yeah, a coyote. And I found, and I'm bringing it up because I found a study today that said that there is absolutely an increase in wildlife and predator interaction with humans. And they studied trying to figure out why, and they found that predator populations like bears, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes, especially foxes, not as much bobcats apparently, are now eating a lot of human food. So yeah, it's like 50%. Like for foxes, it was like 50% of the food that they're consuming is human derived. And so that is garbage. And it's also pets, unfortunately. And small critters that you might have in your backyard, like rabbits and stuff. So yeah, that's not my imagination that I'm seeing all kinds. Brian, I saw a black bear.

BW: I heard. Yeah, I heard that episode recently. It's amazing, yeah.

S: A fox and now a coyote, Bob saw a bobcat.

C: Bob saw a bobcat.

B: Two bobcats, they were magnificent.

BW: I didn't even realize there were coyotes in Connecticut.

S: I've always seen them like quick flash on the side of the road kind of thing, but this was the first time it was like full daylight right in front of me, long view, being able to look at the thing. Because my backyard borders woods, so it's not surprising.

BW: We see them all the time here in LA.

C: All the time. I was wondering from you, because you're in the valley, right?

BW: Yeah.

C: Are there a lot of coyotes where you live?

BW: We don't see them that often. I mean, we're in a very, like we're pretty near the highway. So we're in a very flat not a lot of canyons or anything. But I did see one last year. I was driving my daughter to school and one just straight up walked through the middle of a very busy street. And for a second, I was like, is that a wolf? I had no idea what it was because it was like 7:30 in the morning or something like this. And this very large animal that I then realized was a coyote was just crossing the street. So it's not super common, but we definitely see them.

C: We get them all the time here because I'm so close to so many parks and because I'm like more on the East side up by the National Forest and Griffith Park. And one of the big problems that we see in LA and Steve, I think this speaks exactly to what you're talking about is that the coyotes have become way too comfortable around people. And so they'll walk, they'll stay. I mean, I was walking my dog going on a hike the other day with a friend. So we each had our dogs with us and there was a coyote 20, 30 feet from us. He was just sitting there just staring.

BW: Wow.

S: Animals are adapting to human civilization.

E: Did you see the recent footage, viral footage of the cougar stalking that jogger?

BW: Yes.

E: Followed him for like 20 minutes at least.

S: Oh, I don't think he was stalking him. I think he was escorting him out of his territory.

C: I think so too.

S: You came near my cubs.

C: If he wanted to kill him he would have gone up in a tree. That's how they attack. He wouldn't have been probably attacking him from the ground with no element of surprise. That's not how they hunt.

S: And he would occasionally leap at him just to scare him and then would still just trot behind him at a certain distance. I think it was just move along.

B: Did the guy know? The guy knew it.

E: Oh yeah, he filmed it.

S: Yeah, the whole time.

C: Yeah. And I think the guy did, I mean, at least towards the end, pretty much everything right. I just don't like the coverage of these things. I hate when these things go viral. They're like, look how scary cougar wants to eat man. And it's like, no, man in cougars.

E: Territory.

C: Man should leave.

S: He went up to his cubs. He went up to investigate his cubs. Don't freaking do that.

C: Don't do that ever.

S: You see predator cubs, you leave. Yeah. All right.

News Items[edit]

Excess Deaths from Pandemic (10:48)[edit]

S: Well, we're just going to go right to the news items because my first news item is about COVID. And so this will be our discussion of COVID for the week. Brian, we've been covering the pandemic pretty much every week because it's it's still very, very active. The numbers are still going up. The numbers in the US are going up. The numbers worldwide in terms of daily new cases is going up. Some countries are starting to worry that we're seeing the beginning of a second wave. This is still a very, very active issue. What I want to talk about is a study that was published recently looking at excess deaths, a topic that we have brought up previously with respect to the pandemic. But this was the largest study to date looking at the entire United States. So not a regional study. What they did is compiled, just the, all deaths, all cause deaths in the United States from March 1st to August 1st. That's when this data covers. And they just asked the question, how many excess deaths have there been during this pandemic? The number of deaths per year in the United States is remarkably consistent. It's very, very consistent because it just all averages out, you know. And so this, when there's a huge deviation from that very stable baseline, it's pretty easy to detect. And what they found was that the increase in the background death rate in the U.S. was increased by 20%.

BW: Wow.

B: Increased by 20?

S: That's 20%.

BW: Wow.

B: Wow.

S: So that's 225,530 excess deaths over that period. Now, if you extrapolate that to the entire pandemic, that comes out to about 319,402 excess deaths, right? So the official number is 215 now for the U.S. And this says that the real number might be closer to 320,000 excess deaths. But here's the other part of this, is that all the pandemic deaths, deaths attributed to COVID, only account for 67% or two-thirds of those excess deaths.

E: The rest are a combination of other things?

S: The rest are a combination of other things. And I'll get to that in a second. But in researching this topic, I wanted to answer the question, well, how are they counting COVID deaths? Because we hear a lot of conspiracy theories about coding wrong or over-coding or coding to get more money, or including probable cases, and they're calling everything a COVID death, et cetera, et cetera. Just short answer is, that's whole nonsense. But the reporting of deaths due to COVID is in the United States is complicated, because every state has their own rules. And this is another manner in which there has been a lack of leadership at the federal level. It would be nice to just say, all right, guys, we're all going to use this method, just so every state is reporting it thesame way. And there's two different ways in which states can report numbers differently. So let me just quickly describe what those are. States could report deaths based upon either the death certificate. That's one method. Whatever is reported on the death certificate, if COVID is listed as in there's a first order and second order causes, the first order is anything acute that led directly to the patient's death, right? So they might say, their heart stopped due to pneumonia due to COVID, right? So if COVID's anywhere in that chain of events, that's considered a COVID death. The secondary ones are like, yeah, you had chronic hypertension and that didn't help. That's just a chronic underlying condition. That might have made it more likely to die, but didn't directly contribute to their death. So these are basically, if you have COVID listed, I think it's fair to say you would not have died had you not contracted COVID, right? So those are pretty, I think, straightforward. But some states don't go by the death certificate. They report deaths in people who were diagnosed with COVID. So technically speaking, if you had COVID and you got hit by a car, you would get coded as a COVID death. Does that make sense?

BW: Is there a time limit on that? It's like, if you die within...

S: It's like while you have the diagnosis, I think. So it's basically by case, it's COVID case deaths versus the cause of death by death certificate. I think most states use the death certificate method, but some are using the COVID case method.

C: Wouldn't it be nice if we had like a national policy when you did it the same way?

S: Yeah, just what I just said. Now, the other way that states differ is some states only report confirmed cases of COVID as a COVID death. And some states, a minority, but some states allow for probable cases to be coded as COVID deaths. So these are people who meet two criteria. They clinically have a picture consistent with COVID-19 and they epidemiologically fit as a case of COVID-19, meaning that the timing works out and there's no reason why they would have died of anything else, et cetera. So if you meet both clinical and epidemiological criteria for probably having COVID, then some states will include that in their numbers. So again, some people point, they go, oh, they're just calling anything probable cases of COVID. That's not true. You have to actually meet strict criteria. It just means that they never got around to getting a laboratory test.

C: And also you would think that early in the spread of this disease, we didn't have access to a lot of tests. And so we probably did have to code we, the royal we, probably did have to code a lot of these early ones.

S: But actually that's not reasonable assumption, but that's not true. So I looked into it and essentially only about 5% in states that include probable cases, they only represent about 5% on average, it's very state to state of their total cases. So 95% of the cases are still laboratory confirmed. So we're only talking about a 5% variance. So that means if every single case of probable COVID was wrong, was a false positive, that would only reduce the numbers by 5%. But chances are, the vast majority of them were actually COVID. Again, yeah, it would be nice if we're all using one method, but the bottom line is the vast majority of the numbers in that official 215,000 Americans dead with COVID were people who had laboratory confirmed COVID and died from COVID. That's still the vast majority of those numbers. There's no huge overreporting or overestimating these deaths. Now getting back to this data. So if official COVID deaths only account for 67% of the extra 320,000 people who have died this year so far, what are the other 33% coming from? Now, some of them are people who died from COVID, but never went to the hospital. So they died of COVID at home. I think that was happening a lot more at the beginning of the pandemic, but it still happens that people think they don't bother, they're just not gonna...

R: Or they mistook it for flu or something else, not as deadly.

S: But they never, for whatever reason, they never got COVID put on their death certificate, right? Or they never got tested and they come from a state that doesn't include cases that were not laboratory confirmed. So that's probably a huge chunk of that number, but the rest they say are probably mostly people who died because of the disruption in healthcare that's happening during the pandemic. So people who don't go to the hospital because they're afraid of COVID and they die at home of a heart attack. Also, people are missing or delaying doses of chemotherapy, for example, or they're not getting their dialysis on time, or they're just not following up with their primary care doctor about their hypertension or whatever. So there's a lot of just disruption in the system. So that's probably another big chunk of it. And they said a third piece of it is an increase in suicides and overdoses that is happening because of the economic effects of the pandemic. So those are the three things that are probably the main contributors to that extra third of people who are dying during the excess deaths during this pandemic.

C: It's kind of weird that they contributed only to economic effects, the last one. There's a lot of-

S: Yeah, there's a lot of stressors that happen, but certainly economic stress is one of them. They didn't just say it was economic stress.

BW: Is there any data to indicate there's some effect that goes the other way, like there are fewer than expected, "normal deaths", because people aren't driving as much, so there are fewer car accidents, something like that?

S: Totally. Yeah. So traffic accidents are down 8% this year. Traffic deaths are down 8%. So what that means is that there's 8% more excess deaths that are being hidden by the fact that there's fewer traffic deaths. So interestingly, yeah, interestingly, there's a greater accident deaths per mile driven, but fewer miles driven. So people are driving recklessly, more recklessly, but because there's such a decrease in how many people are driving, the total number of traffic accidents are down. And we don't know why that is, but the speculation is people see empty roads and they speed.

C: Oh, that makes sense.

BW: People have been maniacs here in LA. I mean, especially, I don't know if you raised this to Cara, but especially in March, it felt like every time you drove on the highway, someone was doing 100 miles an hour and weaving in and out everywhere.

E: Because they're used to going 10 miles an hour on the highway.

C: I don't know. I never got in the car in March. I literally just locked myself in my house. Yeah, Steve, and also probably infectious diseases and other things are lower as well, right?

S: Yeah. We cut off the tail of the flu season in the spring. So absolutely. So yeah, and then homicides were down, but then they're up. I don't know what the net is for the year.

C: And domestic violence is up, right?

S: Yeah, domestic violence is up. Yeah. It's complicated, obviously, but I think most of those excess deaths are caused either directly or indirectly by COVID. And then there was some discussion about, well, do we count these as pandemic deaths, even if they weren't due to the infection by COVID? It's like, well, it doesn't matter how you answer that question. There's deaths due directly to infection with COVID. And then there is the extra deaths caused by the pandemic, but not related directly to an infection, just the disruption in our society. So there's 300,000 extra people dead this year. That's more than Vietnam. That's a lot. That's a lot of people. And they're projecting that we'll get that number, not the COVID deaths, but the excess deaths are going to break 400,000 by the end of the year, 400,000 additional Americans dead due to this pandemic.

E: We've got ways to go.

C: Steve, you've seen these listicles where they're like, I know it's hard to imagine 250, 300, 400,000 people. So let's break it down. And it'll be like, that's the same population as this city, or that's 10% of that city, or three times the population of this city. And when you really start to think about it that way, it hits in a way deeper way.

BW: For sure.

C: It's brutal.

S: And I also wrote today about the fact that, and I know we discussed this, I think, a little bit last week, again, like Trump said, hey, maybe this herd immunity thing is not a bad idea and it'll just go away, like natural herd immunity. The World Health Organization had to come out with an official statement saying, no, trying to control this pandemic through natural herd immunity is unethical and unscientific. That is not the way we want to go. We want to keep, flatten this curve until we get a vaccine.

E: When is there ever a case for that kind of a means of treating a virus?

S: Never. That's giving up. It's just letting it run.

E: I've never heard of it before.

S: And there are more and more cases. It's still rare, but there are more and more individual cases reported of people coming down with COVID the second time confirmed. They were positive, they were negative, and then they were positive. And so if that becomes more frequent as more time goes by, if it turns out like in year two of this pandemic, if more and more people are getting it for the second time, that's a bad indication that natural immunity may not last long enough.

E: So much for those antibodies.

S: Yeah. And there are experts who are now predicting that this is going to become endemic. That's it. We're never going to really get rid of this. It's just we're going to have to live with this. Even with the vaccine, we live with this like we live with the flu. It's going to be like we live with HIV.

E: We can only minimize it, never eliminate it.

C: And the thing is, regardless of if herd immunity were even possible, which it's not, I mean, or at least not with the amount of death that we would, no amount of death is okay. So I shouldn't even say that we'd be comfortable with. We still have literally no idea what the long-term effects of having been infected with this disease are. And we're hearing not good things from people who are still struggling with symptoms, who have had negative tests multiple times.

S: Yeah, the long-term health consequences could be huge.

E: Oh my gosh.

S: Could be a massive cost. Imagine the increased cost of health care, of having to take care of millions of people who may have now a chronic illness because of this infection. Again, you're right. We don't know enough about this virus to really know what the full risk is. We have to minimize this any way that we can. Okay, let's move on.

When Satellites Collide (25:28)[edit]

S: Completely different news, Bob. You're going to tell us about satellites colliding.

C: Oh no.

B: Yeah, an alert was made this week by space debris tracking company, Leo Labs, that two large chunks of space debris have a significant chance of striking each other this week, like Thursday night. So when this podcast is uploaded, we will know what happens. But now a worst-case scenario called the Kessler effect, which you've mentioned a couple of times on the show, is possible in which widespread debris prevents any access to space for generations. That's not a good worst-case scenario. So that would be just a wonderful exclamation point on 2020 now, wouldn't it? So this alert came from Leo Labs based in California. They track satellites and debris. They have some pretty slick visualization software. I was checking it out. You could zoom in. You see basically the earth surrounded by a swarm of all this debris and satellites and functional equipment as well. You could zoom into each one and it tells you what it is. So space junk is generally defined as man-made debris in low earth orbit that no longer serves any function. And that's, of course, the vast majority of what's up there. And it could be anything from dead satellites and spent rocket stages to wrenches and paint chips and anything in between. What are we talking about? How much debris? It's a lot. There's 20,000 pieces of debris they estimate larger than a soft wall orbiting the earth. There's a half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. And if you consider things that are so small that are there but they can't be tracked, we're talking millions of pieces of debris. Pretty much essentially traveling at speeds up to 17,000 miles an hour. It's crazy fast. And the threat and danger from these collisions are, of course, they're real. Even small debris is nasty because it's just traveling so fast. Look at the paint flecks, literal paint flecks from other machinery in orbit that have repeatedly cracked space station windows. They go, oh boy, look at this crack. We've got to replace this window now. How do you even do that in space? And bigger collisions are getting more real all the time. In the past year alone, there was another near collision just this past January 2020. Two satellites, two good sized satellites that almost collided. And in this past year, the International Space Station had to do emergency maneuvers to avoid collisions three separate times. I picture this klaxon going off with some guy wearing a helmet with a flashing light saying, we got to move and there's something approaching us. So it started this week with Leo Labs tweet. They said, we are monitoring a very high risk conjunction between two large defunct objects in LEO, Low Earth Orbit. Multiple data points show misdistance are less than 25 meters and percent chance of collision between one and 20%. And the combined mass of both objects is 2,800 kilograms. So one of the two large defunct objects in LEO is a defunct Russian Paris navigation satellite launched in 1989. That's the year my first marriage. The other is a spent Chinese Cheng Zheng 4C rocket stage that launched in 2009. So these are in the middle of Low Earth Orbit, about 990 kilometers up. And the combined mass, like I said, 2.8 metric tons. This is heavy weights. These are big. That's a lot of weight, a lot of kinetic energy. And their modeling suggests that they will miss each other by less than 82 feet. Now, 82 feet. You talk about it a bullet grazing your temple. To give you an idea how close this is, spacecraft often take evasive maneuvers to avoid objects within 60 kilometers. It's like, oh boy, 60 kilometers. Let's move this guy. This is only 82 feet. So that tells you how insanely close this is. Also, the relative velocities between these two objects, that's what gets you. This isn't like two cars on the highway traveling in the same direction. No, pretty much the opposite. They've got relative velocity of 14.7 kilometers per second. That's 9.1 miles per second, 10 times faster than the fastest bullets. The kinetic energy uses mind numbing. So the real fear, though, is not just these two satellites bashing each other. Not satellites. One is a spent stage and one is a dead satellite.

C: But isn't anything that's orbiting the earth technically a satellite?

BW: It's technically a satellite, yeah.

C: Yeah, you were right.

B: Yeah, I mean, it's a satellite. But when you think satellite, you're not thinking of a wrench in orbit around the earth. You're thinking of a functional satellite, a mechanism that was launched to communicate and do stuff. So just going with the common usage. So the real fear here, though, is what's called the Kessler syndrome or the Kessler effect, or more descriptively, collisional cascading, which is I think a little bit better. So this term came about in 1978 by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler. He proposed this idea that low earth orbit could become so common. It could be so filled up that collisions could happen frequently, relatively frequently, enough to create a feedback loop of collision debris causing more collisions and so on until low earth orbit is essentially filled with debris. It's like that scene from Wall-E, right? Remember when you're blasting off the earth and they fly through-

E: A cloud of satellites.

B: Yeah. I mean, that's a real nightmare scenario in so many ways. Imagine no space missions of any kind because nothing could get past that gauntlet of space debris. No moon or Mars or Pluto launches. And that's just the almost tolerable end of the spectrum. Far worse is dealing with life with no satellites for years, decades, or potentially generations. I mean, that's in a real worst case scenario. That is, I mean, you can't-

E: How will I call you, Bob?

B: -wrap your head around it. Oh, dude, yeah, we'll be doing a lot of faxing, believe me.

J: When you say they're going to be 80 feet away from each other, what are the error bars? Are they saying that there is actually a threat that they might hit each other?

B: There's a one to 20% chance of them hitting. So potentially one in five chance of them actually hitting. That's not insignificant at all, at all. So yeah, that's scary. But Jay, think about no satellites for potentially years. I mean, that's just like... You got to really think about it to think of how much satellites improve our lives. No satellite imaging or communications. All of this are granted. No weather satellites. Hey, Siri, what's the weather going to be like next Saturday? No, that's not going to happen. No satellite GPS. No Google Maps navigation. I refuse to ever buy maps and navigate by maps. Oh my God. Can you imagine doing that again? No environmental monitoring. Telephone and data transmissions will be limited to landlines and submarine cables. Imagine that. And what about your broadband and multimedia links? You don't even want to know what's going to happen with that. So yeah, it would just be... I mean, people certainly will be dying because of this lost technology, but it would... I mean, it would be... Our lives would be very different. Absolutely, amazingly different. And that would be pretty much the only thing people are going to be talking about if it happened, if that worst case scenario happened, of course. Now imagine... Now I said previously that it was like a 20% chance, right? One in five potentially. Now if a collision happens, what are then the chances of this Kessler effect happening if these two objects collide? I mean, I don't know. I don't think anybody knows. I think it's probably pretty hard to put good numbers to that because it's such a complicated interaction.

E: They haven't run it through a bunch of computers to come up with simulations to figure out what the scenarios would be?

B: Not that I'm aware, but I think it would be hard to tell you if this is going to be the Kessler effect that's going to cascade to... I mean, this is low earth orbit, but it can knock objects into a higher orbit. And then there's the fact of how do we actually clean out the orbits? And there are companies that are taking steps to try to minimize this, but there's so many of them. Like I said, there's just so many of these that it's so hard to deal with. I don't think we're ever going to get a handle on it.

E: You wouldn't need to clear the whole field, just enough of it to minimize the future potential damage, right? Get it down to a much more tolerable, reasonable sort of number.

B: Exactly. Yeah. So you're not going to get rid of every paint chip in orbit, but you can get rid of the ones that can initiate this cascade of debris creation. So at the very least, we should be at least thinking about it and coming up with plans, serious plans, because this is just like, these worst case scenarios are... All right. It's not as bad as a vacuum decay where everything basically will just be gone. But the change to our civilization would be horrible and long lasting.

Humans Evolving Extra Blood Vessel (34:43)[edit]

S: All right. Cara, are humans continuing to evolve?

C: Well, I think that's a big question. And I think the basic takeaway answer is absolutely humans are going to evolve because humans are alive and we have genetic information and we can't not evolve. But I think it raises a few other interesting questions that I want to get to. But before I do, I want to tell you guys about an artery. So we have arteries in our arms and our legs and our trunk and our brains and all over our bodies. In your arms, coming from the shoulder area, you have the brachial artery and then that splits to create the radial and the ulnar artery. So those are named for the bones that they're over, right? It makes sense. So the radial one is splits and kind of follows towards the thumb side of the forearm. The ulnar artery splits and follows towards the pinky side of the forearm. And I came across, by the way, this has nothing to do with anything, but it's so interesting, an anatomical term that I had never heard before. I was reading a little bit more about the radial artery because, of course, this is the one that you feel when you're feeling for somebody's pulse. You've felt your pulse in your arm.

S: That's your radial pulse.

C: That's your radial pulse. You're feeling it from your radial artery. That makes sense. Did you know that there is an anatomical region? Steve, you might know this, but it makes me laugh so much.

S: The snuff box?

C: Yes, it's called the anatomical snuff box.

E: Wait a minute.

B: What?

C: And I had never heard, and I taught A&P, but we never got this specific. Yeah, it's where sort of the hand and the wrist join. And if you flex your thumb out all the way, you'll see a little indentation there. People used to snort snuff off of their hands. Named it the anatomical snuff box.

E: And they used to then wipe their nose on their sleeves, which is why they put buttons on their sleeves to kind of prevent people from actually doing that after they took their snuff.

B: What?

S: Is that really true?

C: I don't know.

S: That sounds apocryphal.

C: But the anatomical snuff box is not apocryphal. This is a thing.

BW: I have a friend who does that.

S: I do nerve conduction studies, and that's one of the lead placements. When you look at the radial nerve, like the radial sensory study, one of the electrodes goes in the anatomical snuff box.

C: I love that. So I don't know why. I was laughing for like five minutes straight in my head when I saw that.

BW: I have a friend who's a professor at Cambridge, and he told me that one of the old Cambridge dons told him that this precise thing was the way to do snuff properly in a Cambridge common man.

E: Wow. Snuff.

C: Out of your anatomical snuff box.

B: I see my snuff box now. Cool.

S: Yeah, you can see it. It's very easy. It's going to push your thumb back.

C: I think a lot of people are going to be sharing this with friends and family.

J: I don't know what you mean. I push my thumb back and do what?

C: No, don't push it back. Make a big L.

B: Extend it all the way back. As far back as the thumb will go.

J: Oh, there's a little dip there.

C: Yeah.

S: A little dip at the base of the thumb. That's it.

C: Hold it up to your nose and snuff box. Anywho, that's not even what we're talking about today. What we're talking about today is that there's a percentage of people who actually have a third major artery, because there are a lot of small arteries, but a third major artery in the lower part of their arm, not the radial, not the ulnar, but the medial artery.

B: So the brachial artery splits for them into three parts?

S: Well, it comes off the ulnar. The brachial breaks into the radial and ulnar, then the ulnar splits into the median.

C: Right. So the brachial artery is up high. It splits to those. And for some people, the median artery is in between the two. Now, how I stumbled across all this anatomy stuff is I was trying to figure out, can you see any of this stuff? But I think it's all too deep. I think you can only see superficial veins and arteries underneath your skin. So that makes a bit of sense why this new study had to look at cadavers to learn more about this median artery. And what the new study claims is that humans may be evolving to have a median artery because they were able to look up historical data from autopsies, from different ways that individuals collected data using cadavers and compiling that data and compare the prevalence of the median artery around the turn of the century to the prevalence of the median artery, not quite today, but recently, because, of course, they were looking at cadavers within the last several years of people who were born quite a while ago. I want to say their range was pretty decent. It was like ages 50 to 101 or something like that. But these researchers didn't only look at their own sample of cadavers, they also compared this information to as much data as they could possibly find online. So they really just dug deep into the data, all the published data about median arteries that they could find, and tried to compile all that information to come up with a relatively valid count of how many people have this artery. What they found is that historically around the turn of the century, the prevalence was reported to be, oh, here's the exact date, around the mid-1880s, if you were born then, the prevalence was about 10% of people had this artery. Based on the cadavers that were studied for this study, so it wouldn't be people that were born today, but people that were born 50, even up to 100 years ago, that prevalence had grown to 30%. This is a big jump, a statistically significant increase, any way you slice their data.

B: In 50 years?

C: No.

B: 1880 to 1930?

C: No, but that's on the old end of the sample. Their sample wasn't like, their median age or their mean age wasn't 90.

S: Yeah, so it could be 100 years.

C: Yeah, it's closer to like 100 years. So I'd say, in terms of human generations, what is that, three? Or do we measure it by 20s now?

S: 20 years. 20 years of generation.

C: 20 years, okay, so like five generations, maybe four or five generations, they're seeing that there's a significant increase, right, from 10% to 30% relatively short period of time. Now, there's a couple of things that I found were troublesome in the study. I mean, the main one is that they even state overtly that, "the focus of this study was not to analyze the prevalence of the median artery in relation to ethnicity, geographic origin, or variations by sex, but to identify the global trends in its occurrence". That said, they only looked at white people from Australia. That's not a global trend. And I think that's something that's really important to point out. So you can't say, oh, we're not interested in looking at ethnicity, we just want to see how it's trending globally and then look at a tiny sliver of the population. So let's keep that in mind, too. This is a global trend in white people from Australia.

S: Right. But although they probably, I was thinking they would have to do that, though, or at least have that data, because otherwise, you could just be seeing migration trends.

C: Exactly. The problem is, so they collected a bunch of data online. Okay, so their sample was only 78 upper limbs. And then they decided, okay, we want to broaden this out. And we want to see if there's more data on the subject. So we can compile everything that exists and do some statistical juju and figure it out. One of the things that they had to do was eliminate a bunch of data, because one of the study's authors, who has published a lot of other studies, was specifically looking for what's called a secular trend. That's an area of interest to that researcher. So a secular trend in development is that over time, people are getting bigger, and they're like hitting puberty sooner. And so they were looking for secular trends. And in doing so, they feel like they probably were biasing the outcomes of their studies, because they had a very particular question that they were trying to answer. So they removed a lot of those studies. But really, that's kind of besides the point. The problem is that I couldn't find any ethnicity data at all in this publication. So basically, they're saying we're not interested in ethnicity. We just want to find global trends. They did say all of their people were Australian of European descent. And then they said there are other cadavers too. And so it's very hard to know. We just don't know. So you're right, Steve. This could be a migration situation. It could be a bottleneck evolutionary event. It could be an evolutionary event, sure, but that's only happening within a small percentage of people, especially because the time span is so short. Like we said, we're only talking about 100 years, 50 to 100 years. We're only talking about, let's say, two, three, four, five generations. Oftentimes, people will stay put in that amount of time. So this could all just be people from a very specific region as well.

S: I also wonder if it's just developmental, not really evolutionarily. Is it just because of changing diet and whatever nutritional status or something to do with hormonal status? And is that just affecting? Because again, a couple of things. So first of all, variations like this are very common. If you look at "normal anatomy" in a book, you're seeing what's present 60% of the time and 80% of the time. Everyone has variations.

B: There's whole muscles. There's whole muscles that other people have, these other muscles that people that can wiggle their ears, right? They've got some muscles that people don't have.

S: And also persistence of fetal anatomy is also very common. That's one of the common variants that people have. This is present when we're the fetus and then a lot of things change after we're born. But in some people, they don't. Some people, they have the... I read this all the time. They have the fetal origin of this or that, you know what I mean? So that's very, very common. That's what we're seeing here because this is like a normal fetal anatomy.

C: Yeah, that's an important point to make.

S: It just withers away in most people, but in some people, it persists.

C: So yeah, the median artery is found in a lot of fetuses and then it goes away in most adults. And so I think that to break that down a couple of different ways, yes, a persistence of fetal anatomy is developmental. But in a way, I think you could also argue that this could be an evolutionary phenomenon if the general population is shifting over time. So why is it that more people are maintaining that artery? And there are different questions like, oh, is it contributing and giving us more blood supply? You need it as a fetus because you're growing. So you need all this blood in your extremities to help grow. But they're saying maybe we are doing more dexterous things with our hands and that's requiring that we have more blood flow. Other people are arguing, wait, but that's a concern because apparently people, there is like a correlation between having a median artery and being more likely to have carpal tunnel, which could be a problem with having more of a median artery every combination under the sun. So to say, I think to make an argument that because 30% of people today, which 30% of a very small segment of the population today has a median artery versus 10% based on historical evidence from the 1800s from dissections of cadavers to make that huge leap and say, this is happening because it is benefiting us from an evolutionary perspective. I think that that's a big leap. It really is. It's an interesting question. I think that there are a lot of really cool studies that can come out of it. And apparently there are other, I guess, I don't know if you would call them organs. What's one, there's like a bone in our knee, the favela, which I'd never heard of either.

B: Is that near the near the patella, I guess?

C: Yeah, right. And that's three times more common today than it was about a century ago. But I think truth be told, I may be selling these researchers short, although some of I think the claims that I've seen, not just in the source article, but in some of the interviews, like direct interviews with the studies authors are a little kind of wild. In my perspective, they're not quite conservative enough. I think what they're kind of saying is exactly what Steve pointed to earlier. There's always weird variation, right? And so we have anatomical standards. And when something only exists in 10% of the people, it's not written into the textbooks. But once we start to see it, or if we start to see it in 50% or more, that becomes normative. And so then it starts to become a part of the medical education, not saying that Steve never learned about the median artery in med school, but it's not in your anatomy books mostly, because it's rare.

S: It depends on how deep you're diving. Because I do nerve conduction studies, and just to get back to that, I learn all the variants that somebody who doesn't do that, a physician who doesn't do that, wouldn't learn. They learn the basic stuff. But I have to know about every little variant because I will encounter it in people, in patients. And it will affect the studies that I'm doing. So if you're a surgeon, if you're a surgeon who might have to operate on that, you'll know, yeah, some percentage of the people are going to have an artery right there. You got to know about that. It depends on what you do.

C: And you've probably experienced it firsthand if you're a surgeon who works on the forearm. But if I were to open up my-

S: Wrist?

E: Wow.

C: Coming in hot. My cadaver atlas. It probably wouldn't have one, for example. Or if I were in medical school and I were doing gross anatomy lab if there were 10, or now, I guess, if there were 10, three of the people in the room may have one, as opposed to in the 1880s, one of the people in the room. But even that, I don't 100% trust.

BW: Do they say what the benefit is supposed to be? Is it just increased blood flow? Is that it?

C: Yeah, increasing blood flow to your extremities, which is why developing fetus needs that because they're growing so quickly. But I don't think anybody's done a study to show that people who have it have more dexterity or any sort of like-

BW: Yeah.

B: I wouldn't want one. I wouldn't want one. It's just another way to bleed out.

S: Increase your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.

C: Can increase your risk. They did say there's a correlation with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Who's That Noisy? (49:30)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: _brief_description_perhaps_with_link_

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

J: All right, guys. Last week, I played this Noisy.


Would you guys like to guess?

BW: Sounds like a rain stick to me.

C: Yeah, like something raining.

E: Yeah, good one.

C: Something solid, almost like one of those coin games.

BW: Yes.

C: In like the casino.

BW: Yeah, like you push them down the little thing.

C: Yeah. And then if a bunch of them fall at once, it's like pfrrrt.

E: Oh, plinko.

BW: It definitely sounds like a cascade of some kind, right?

J: Well, okay. So not horribly wrong. Let me throw out some guesses from, this is from a listener named Alexander. And Alexander said, "Hey, Jay, taking a shot in the dark on this one sounds like water is running in the background. So I'm going to start by saying it's an amphibian. A frog wouldn't be cool enough to guess. So I'm going with some kind of skink." Guys, what's a skink?

E: A combination of a skunk.

S: My daughter has a skink.

BW: It's like a big chubby lizard, right?

B: Tell her I'm sorry. I hope she's allright.

S: It's a lizard. It's a lizard.

C: They're slimy though. They're like snake.

S: No, they're not slimy.

C: Well, they're not slimy. Sorry, sorry. I shouldn't say they're slimy.

S: They're lizards. My daughter has an Indonesian blue-tongued skink. Very cute. They're just a regular old lizard.

C: But certain species of skinks people think are snakes with legs.

BW: Yes, because they're like real thick, right? And they've got these little kind of like chubby little lizard legs.

C: And like whippy tails.

J: All right. Well, I don't know what you guys are talking about with lizards and skinks, but I'm going to go on to the next one. This is from a listener named Jillian Roarda. And she said, "My name is Jillian R. My dad listens to this. And he played the Who's That Noisy. And my guess is an alligator mating call."

C: What?

J: And you know what? It's not that bad of a guess. If you guys remember the noise from weeks ago, there was an alligator noise where they vibrate the water. And it does have a little bit of that vibration noise in there. So this was not a bad guess, although it is not correct, which is fine, because most people send in wrong guesses anyway. So don't feel bad. Anthony Murphy wrote in and he said, hi. He said "Anthony Murphy in Ireland, very longtime listener. Is it something kind of undersea soundscape? I think I can hear shrimp in there. Keep up the great work, Anthony." God damn Anthony.

C: I think I hear shrimp.

BW: That is great. Wow. I would not be able to identify a shrimp by sound.

J: I find it funny that Cara was laughing because Anthony is closer than anybody that sent in.

C: It's amazing. I just love that he's like, sounds like it's underwater. Definitely shrimp. Yeah, those are the shrimps.

J: Without a doubt, this is under the sea. It is a soundscape from under the sea. And there probably is shrimp in there because going back to the original submission from Nick and Mariana Bankovic, they said, "Hi, Jay. I was reading the latest issue of National Geographic in which they talk about the sounds of a healthy coral reef. So that is the sound of a healthy coral leaf". Take a listen. [plays Noisy] That is really cool.

C: I definitely hear the water now.

BW: Yes.

J: Yeah, right. So there's water, there's there's cooing, there's shrimp playing bongo drums.

BW: I mean, once you listen for it, you can really hear the shrimp.

J: So all right. So thank you so much for that. Now, before I go on to the new Noisy, I just want to play, I want to play a sound for you guys. This was really cool. This guy sent in a socially distant candy delivery shoot for trick or treaters. And essentially it's like a flexible PVC pipe that he rigged up to go down the stairs like that. He kind of taped it down, I guess, the railing so he could give kids candy from 15-10 feet away, say. I don't really know how far away it was, but it seemed to be about that far away. So take a look at this. Listen to this. Can you hear it?

E: Oh, yeah.

C: Yeah.

E: That reminds me of the matchbox cars and the orange track you used to send it down.

BW: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. With a little loop to loop.

J: Yes. Well, this is a ribbed pipe like the kind that you would use in for dry your yard for drainage. So I thought that was really neat because the guy rigged it up. He knows that kids are going to come and he rigged it up so he can give them the candy at a distance. And it was really cool. I just thought Bob would really like that. So I had to play that.

B: Yeah, thanks Jay.

New Noisy (53:49)[edit]

J: All right. So I have a new Noisy for this week. This is a Noisy that was sent in by a listener named Simon Toothill. And he specifically said it is pronounced Tooth-hill, Tooth-hill. So I did not mispronounce it. Here is the Noisy.


I hope you guys, I want a lot of guesses on this one because this one is really fun and interesting and I'm really curious to see what everybody thinks because it could be so many things, but it really it's actually one very specific thing. So if you have an idea what this is, send it to me at

S: All right. Thanks, Jay. So listen, we have a really interesting interview coming up with Dr. Paul Thibodeau, who was the lead author on this study about the graphene making energy that we talked about last week. And I want to say, give a special thanks to SGU listener David Thompson for setting us up with this interview. So let's go on to that now.

Interview with Paul Thibado (55:03)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Paul Thibodeau. Paul, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

PT: Thanks. Glad to be here.

S: So Paul is a professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, and he is the lead author on a study that we discussed last week about building a circuit that, at least as far as the press release says, generates clean limitless power from graphene. And we thought we sort of hit the ceiling on our technical understanding of the paper, and one of our listeners, as we requested, hooked us up with the lead author so we could get into a little bit more detail. So Paul, just give us a quick background on who you are and what your research is about, just so we know what your history is, and then what this study showed.

PT: Okay, yeah. So I've been at the University of Arkansas now since 1996, actually, and I got my PhD in physics at the University of Pennsylvania. And around the time I was starting my PhD, the Nobel Prize in physics was recently handed out for this invention of the scanning tunneling microscope. And I'm like, oh, I want to do that. So in my PhD work, I built a scanning tunneling microscope, and I became kind of an expert in scanning tunneling microscopy, and I continued that work on, well, to this day. And then started probably 2010, I started looking at graphene, and we could make the graphene freestanding. It was suspended over like a picture frame. And it's a very unusual, very special material, and that's really what led to the discovery that we published in the paper here. Although, actually, I should say I have probably 10 to 20 other papers on freestanding graphene. It's a very complicated system, and there's a lot of interesting phenomenon there. This is just kind of the culmination of all of that work up to this point.

S: Okay. And just to get further quick review for our listeners, graphene is a single molecule layer, two-dimensional material of like a chicken wire of carbon.

PT: Yes.

S: Yeah. What your most recent study showed, and it's good to hear this wasn't a one-off, this is like the end of a line of research that you're doing, shows that the graphene, the freestanding graphene, as you say, sort of undulates spontaneously. Is that right?

PT: Yeah, that's exactly right. So we I often use the analogy of looking at the ocean that's kind of a on a heavy windy day as well. Not the calm ocean, but a kind of more violent ocean. So there's a lot of dynamic motion, and there's a lot of up swells and down swells, and the graphene seems to be doing this all the time, because it's at room temperature. Even at low temperatures, it's still moving similar to this.

S: And was it accurate to analogize that movement to Brownian motion?

PT: It is, in fact, Brownian motion. Yeah, I heard that on the show. That was excellent. So it is Brownian motion, but let me tell you this, because I think you're going to like this, that it's Brownian motion unlike anything else. It's pretty special. So if you think about, yeah, so if you think about the molecule, they're, of course, undergoing Brownian motion, just as a simple primer. So when you say something is at a certain temperature, let's say we're at 300 Kelvin right now. Well, what that means is there's basically that much energy is the equivalent to the kinetic energy of each atom in the room. So each atom has a velocity, and that velocity is its temperature. So if you're going to say something's hotter, what it means is the atoms are moving faster. You know, if it's colder than the atoms are moving slower. So temperature and velocity, they're the same thing.

S: So I mean, I was going to get to like sort of the key question that we couldn't really answer ourselves, which is, so this latest study is you figured out a way how to generate a small electrical current from this motion of the freestanding graphene. Is that accurate?

PT: Yeah, right. Exactly. So that's related to this Brownian motion. So in the atoms in the room, they're all moving at a high velocity because they're at room temperature, but they're all moving in different directions simultaneously. And it's very difficult to pick one of them out and steal its energy from that one because there's just so many of them all in the same space. And if you looked at the, even though they're free to move along across the room, if you looked at a solid, a solid has a bunch of atoms all locked in a lattice, but they're vibrating very quickly in their lattice positions, but they don't move very far. They don't move many lattice spacings across. Well, now imagine graphene, maybe like a sheet hanging on the clothesline. And it's a, and it's like the chicken wire. If you like, it's just a whole thing is waving back and forth and it's moving huge distances and it's all connected together by the lattice. So all the atoms have to move coherently together. So at certain times, a large number of atoms a hundred thousand atoms are all moving exactly in the same direction together. If that was happening in the room with us now, we would say there's a breeze. And if you had a breeze in the room, you could harvest energy from that.

B: So, so my question then is, what does that say about Richard Feynman's very famous assertion that Brownian motion cannot do work? Is he wrong? Is this a special case? What's going on with that?

S: Is there a loophole?

PT: No, that's a great question. I'm glad you brought that up. I've watched Feynman's lecture because well, that gets reported to me frequently. So I had to go watch it. And the interesting thing, if you watch his lecture, he starts off with, okay, let's say we know the air is moving around, there's Brownian motion there. And let's say we have a little paddle out there and the paddle gets kicked around. And at the end of this paddle, there's a long arm and we hook it up to this ratchet with a pinion so it can only turn one way. And so he constructs the whole instrument and has the Brownian motion knocking the rack and pinion. He's fine with all that. The part where he starts getting worried, and you guys mentioned this on your show, is when he says, well, the ratchet's going to start heating up. If the ratchet starts heating up, now we have energy flowing from a cold area to a hot area. It's going from the room to the rack and pinion system. And now there's a problem. So the second law of thermodynamics says that, well, if you build a fire, of course, when you're outside, then the heat will flow from the hot to the cold. And you never see it flowing from cold to hot. And if it did, well, if you said you're observing something like that, you would say, I'm violating the second law of thermodynamics. So he was really illustrating a violation of the second law in that video, if you look at it. I don't think he was so worried about the Brownian part. But anyhow, that may be a technicality, but that's a good start. There's the temperature, things flowing from cold to hot, heat, a hot particle flowing from cold to hot. That's not going to happen. If you do that, you're going to violate the second law.

BW: Well, my question was, is this something like, so there's this famous thing now for non-equilibrium systems, right? You can have these like little violations of the second law, right? The fluctuation theorem, stochastic thermodynamical kind of stuff. So is that what's going on with what you guys are doing? Or is it something else?

PT: No, it's definitely is that. So yeah, let me just say one other thing. I do think that Feynman took his lecture. Well, I should also just mention it's just a lecture to like a freshman class that he's giving some illustration about some topic. But I do believe there's a paper that came out in the fifties by a guy named Bruon. And he's a big shot physicist that, you classify him in the genius category. I mean, he has Bruon scattering and there's the Bruon zone and crystal lattices. I mean, there's a million Wikipedia pages dedicated to the discoveries of this guy. Well, in the fifties, he wrote a paper. He said the diode had kind of recently been discovered. It's an odd device. And he's like, hey, is the diode a Maxwell's demon? You know, will allow, will allow particles to flow from cold to hot. And so he wrote a paper saying, no, it can't do that. But the problem with that is the mathematics was not available to him at that time to undergo that investigation. So he really just makes an argument. He says, well, let's say it does flow over there and now it's going to get hot. And then now we're going to have some kind of back force, that's going to push on this thing because we can't violate the second law of thermodynamics. And so therefore, no, it won't work. And I think this is really what Feynman was trying to say too, by his illustration was that the ratchet was like a diode in the ratchet was heating up. And then this was where the second law was going to fall apart. So we used, the area you mentioned, the stochastic thermodynamics, it's a new area of physics that has really just kind of started its getting traction in the 1990s. And it allows you to incorporate what we call nonlinear effects into these complicated equations. Whereas you could only deal with linear effects. Like, so a resistor would be a linear device, but a diode is a very nonlinear device and Bruon couldn't mathematically handle the diode for that reason, but now we can. And so we did precisely deal with the diode and we in fact put two in there. I mean, the symmetry is actually a bit better if you're going to let it flow down one path, one way, let's let it go back the other way, but just to make it take a different path. So the symmetry is nicer. We in fact found that the diode does not suppress this Brownian current that gets induced. And in fact, it enhances it significantly. The rate of change, this nonlinear rate of change in resistance, in fact, amplifies how much power you can pull from the thermal environment. So there's lots of stuff to process there, but basically I think the thing is that Bruon was wrong and Feynman, I think was just kind of using his example in his lecture. And so people attributed a lot to Feynman because he's so famous, but in fact, it wasn't really till recently that one could actually solve these problems. And I, we teamed up with the top theorists from Madrid. He's on the paper there, Louis Vanilla, who really pulled that off for us.

S: So I like the breeze analogy. I think that helps me wrap my head around this. Could you also say, and would this be maybe a little more of a direct analogy that the undulating of the graphene is like the waves on the surface of an ocean where we can harvest energy from waves? Is that similar?

PT: Yeah, exactly. So a lot of the experiments we were doing before this experiment, we call it like point mode STM. But what that really, you could visualize that as if you stuck a buoy in the ocean and that the buoy was only allowed to go up and down as the swells went up and down. So we were tracking the movement of the freestanding graphene, just like that buoy would track the movement of the ocean. And it's like a random walk, but in one dimension, it's kind of going up and going down and going up and going down. And this is just happening continuously in time. And in studying that signal, we discovered that what has kind of special Brownian motion, it turns out that there's a thing called levy flights. It's kind of a step beyond Brownian motion. It says that the object will move like with a normal Brownian motion, you have a range of distances the particle can take jumps at. And in some phenomenon, well, if something jumped, let's say, 20 times further than the standard deviation, you'd say, well, that would happen maybe once in the universe. Well, what we found is those types of jumps were happening all the time, like every second. So it has what's called a heavy tail distribution. And it's an extension of Brownian theory. And so it has even more special mechanics behind it. But the idea of the buoy in the ocean is a good picture of what's going on.

B: But doesn't that analogy fall apart, though, because we know what causes waves, right? You've got wind, you've got perhaps tidal forces. But so at what point does this thing need to have energy put into the system in order to harvest more from it? I mean, you can't-

PT: OK, so that's a great question. So I'm going to just go back to that earlier thing that I said that temperature is velocity. So when the graphene is at room temperature, it's all the atoms are moving at a really high speed. And here they're kind of going in the wrong direction. But then sometimes they kind of buckle and move together in the same direction because they're all connected together. So just because it's at room temperature, that's that means that these atoms have kinetic energy and they're constantly moving. So that's the source of energy.

B: Right. So you are cooling the room then very, very very small increments, but you are cooling the room then.

PT: Yeah, so that's exactly right. So basically, if you think of like even the simple Brownian particle like a dust particle. So the dust. So if you had a dust particle, let's say you kind of push the dust particle into the room. It's moving quickly. What it's going to do is going to bang into the air molecules and transfer some of its kinetic energy to the to the room. It's going to heat the room up by cooling itself down because its velocity will go to zero. So now it's transferred energy heat, because that's just kinetic energy. And now it's sitting there at rest. Well, guess what the atoms in the room start hitting it and making it speed back up again, and then just in different directions. And so now the room is taking its energy and transferring it to the dust particle and giving it temperature and taking temperature from the room. So that's just called thermodynamic equilibrium. If energy being lost by this particle and being gained by the particle are equal over a long time average, then we're in thermodynamic equilibrium. So you can steal in little bits. And that's what we're doing.

J: Hey, Paul, earlier today, when you and I were talking on the phone, you said that you actually did build the circuit.

PT: The first two figures in the paper are experimental data. So here's it's kind of a funny story. So I did this. I've been doing this experiment since 2010. I mean, elements of it. So I tried to publish this paper three years ago, just the experimental data. And I just honestly, you get a lot of pushback that, well, that would violate the laws of thermodynamics. So that, we need to have a model. You have to better understand your data. You can't publish your data. So it got basically got rejected. This started re teaming up with these kind of top theorists and statistical mechanics. And that took two years to figure out the theory to basically build a model that represented the circuit. And they wouldn't have done that unless I had this data and nobody would have revisited Bruon's problem that he said the diode won't rectify unless I had this data. And I went to these theorists and said, hey, look, we're going to have to revisit this problem, because I've got some really cool results here. But unless I've got a theory explaining it, I can't get it published. So we worked on that for two more years. And finally, we got the whole piece figured out. And that's what this paper represented.

S: Okay, so if assuming all that's correct, how much can a device like this be scaled up?

PT: Yeah, so we are working we're working on that too. Because while these theorists are busy for two years, I'm kept working. So what we can do is basically the graphene is just kind of suspended over a bunch of holes. And inside those holes are little electrodes that are fixed electrodes so that when the graphene is waving up and down, it's waving up and down over these electrodes. And then we can induce an alternating current. So what we've done is we've built, you can design circuits what's called a process development kit for these different foundries around the world. They have the they give them to you develop a circuit, and then you email it to them basically, and then they build those chips, they send them back to you. And then we can do some additional post processing on those where we can add the graphene. So we're working on that. Because the and let me just back up a little bit. So we have these regions we're collecting energy from, we didn't collect that much energy, but it's also not from a very big space. So if you looked at the power per unit area, it's actually comparable to wind power farms, and solar power farms. And so what we're doing is scaling on a chip having millions of these kind of like a computer chip might have a billion transistors, we have millions of these little harvesting areas on a chip all adding together to scale it up.

S: And so what would give us an idea, like if you had a one centimeter by by one centimeter square chip, how much energy are we talking about? Can I run a pacemaker? Can I recharge my phone off of that? What how much energy are we talking about?

PT: Yeah, so so if you if you look at actual production from from, there's a study that's been done on wind farms, like thousands of wind farms around the planet, and thousands of solar farms, in fact, around the planet as well. And the power per unit area that they take up is point five watts per meter squared for wind in five watts per meter square for solar and those and they've already picked the best spots in the world this paper talks about, which is interesting. So the numbers only going down from here. And so actually, we're on that same scale, we're on this that same scale, like one watt per meter squared, you can stack these in the third dimension as well it doesn't rely on the sun shining on it, or the wind blowing on it. So you can step you can have a power per unit volume for these things as well. So it's there. We're not totally sure if we're going to achieve all that. But I'm just you're asking that kind of what we're doing and why we're doing it to some extent. So that's what we're doing. And it's also true that graphing is it's more flexible than anything because flexibility depends on the thickness. So if you looked at like a 15 nanometer cantilever, they're extremely flexible, whereas this is 10 times thinner. So it's going to end up being to the third power. So it's 1000 times more flexible than the silicon nitride cantilevers for like mem devices. So you could also have this graphing device in your car in the cars going along shaking it, that's just going to grab more energy because you can physically shake it and make it move. Or you could heat it up, it'll have it'll move faster. Or you could shine light on it'll absorb light and heat up as well. So it has a lot of nice opportunity there. So it's worth pursuing.

B: What if I had one as big as my car? Give me some limits. Where does it fall apart? How big how big can you scale this up? A big is a house? Can I can I put it in my basement or run my house for for a few generations?

J: Well, Bob, I would imagine that you're not it's not like one giant sheet of graphene, you're going to have billions of little tiny sheets of graphene.

B: I'm talking about trillions and quintillions of them. How far can we go with this?

PT: Yeah. So there's not technically a problem there. But let me give you a different picture, different mental picture. Instead of building this, this billion dollar cube, it's like a computer chip, basically, you have foundry made, and you it's very expensive. And it's got to be secure, you got to protect it, you got to hook some power lines up to it. So you can deliver this power out to the city, you got to kind of put those in and man them and protect those two, you got to charge all these people. Why don't you just put the power right where you're using it. So if your mouse needs power, stick some power there. If your keyboard needs some power, stick some power there whatever needs the power, you just give it the power right, right the processor puts some power on the processor. So we look at it more as as distributed power is what we're interested in near term.

J: That makes a lot of sense.

BW: As a physicist, I was a particle theorist, and I'm so jealous that you can like, go like come up with this data and go to a theorist and in two years, get a model that works to support the data like I worked on theoretical supersymmetry and stuff like that, there was no chance that would ever ever happen in the kind of stuff I did. And it's amazing that you're doing the kind of experiments that can have this back and forth with theorists on these pretty short timescales. It's just really wonderful.

PT: Yeah, yeah I there were there were particle physicists in my grad program. And I felt sorry for them, too, because it's, it's a tough, you're kind of, you're kind of at the nice edge of physics right there. And, you can only pull experiments from these multi billion dollar machines I mean, we're a pretty small group working in a small lab. And I think nobody was interested in freestanding graphing, it's messy and it was doing these weird things, it's hard to characterize it. So I could I'm in Arkansas, so I don't want to compete with MIT and Harvard. So I just go, well, I'm going to just pick this one that no one's interested in, and just study the death out of it. And then sometimes you turn over enough rocks and you find something. Yeah, I did want to mention that the second law of thermodynamics. So when this graphene is waving back and forth near electrode, and it's inducing current to flow like an AC current in the circuit, which we can then rectify with diodes now, and then it goes into a load resistance. So load resistance is doing something for you, maybe that's your phone or whatever. The thing that's important to realize is that when this brown the electrons are just like air molecules, they have Brownian motion too. So they're moving around all the time, and they're moving around with a charge attached to them. And so they're creating these voltage fluctuations all the time. So what we did is instead of having this crazy current, we made it direct DC, and it kind of controlled it to get it to lower frequencies. So it's more useful. And this current flowing through the resistor, normally you think, oh, if I'm running a lot of current through a resistor, well, the resistor will get hot. But in this case this current is always flowing in the wires and the resistor. It's just the Brownian motion. And so it doesn't get hot. In fact, if you took this current away, if you stopped everything from moving, it would cool down. Just like if you stopped all the air in the room moving, it would be only if you cooled it down, made it basically turn into a liquid. So it's the same idea. So even though we're kind of taking this thermal energy from the environment and stealing it in order to stay in thermal equilibrium, the resistor has to dissipate back to the environment, the same amount of energy. It can't get hotter. It can't get colder. So everything's in thermodynamic equilibrium. I mean, we wanted to study that as a special case, but that's the special case that everybody's interested in. And that's the one if there's a temperature gradient, people kind of know what's going to happen. So anyhow, I just want to point that out because it was talked in your show. And if there are any questions, I can answer that too, if you want, but that was the idea about the heat in the resistors.

S: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, I think you answered our question. So again, it's just a clever way of harvesting small amounts of heat at a small scale, basically.

PT: Right. Coming from fluctuations instead of averages is kind of the key buzzwords. Yeah, exactly.

S: Great. Well, Paul, thank you so much for giving us your time. This has been really fascinating. I think it got us to another level of understanding of the research that you've done.

PT: Yeah. Yeah. Glad to do it. Thanks for inviting me.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:18:56)[edit]

Email #1: Time ()[edit]

(Transcriptionist's note: We normally lightly edit the text of original emails, but given this one's general kookiness, we're leaving it unedited.)

I send this information to journalists/editors worldwide and I hope that you will share it as well, the students/public/governments don't realize that millions of physicists are fooling humanity. The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 is the second Nobel Prize in Physics for something that cannot exist (gravitational wave and a massive black hole), and that is a disgrace. Even a layman can see that the following is correct, nobody will be able to refute this. I can claim that gravity affects you because I can see or detect you, because I know what you are, because I know that you exist. If I cannot see or detect you then I cannot claim that gravity affects you, that claim would be a lie. Physicists cannot see or detect time, they don't know what time is, and that means that they don't even know if time exists. So physicists must not claim that gravity affects time, that is a lie. Millions of physicists/astronomers claim that spacetime is a merger of space and time while they don't even know what time is, so can physicists explain and prove what time is? (NO). Look around you, milions of physicists know that they cannot see or detect time. So they cannot know what time is and they cannot know if time exists, and that means that physicists must not claim that time dilates or that spacetime exists. Many theories and millions of papers are incorrect if time doesn't dilate and if spacetime doesn't exist, and a lot of research is based on those incorrect/fraudulent papers. Einstein didn't know what time was, he used clocktime and that is not real. Physicists claim that many experiments prove that time dilates, but that is impossible if they don't know what time is. When a clock runs faster in an experiment then physicists claim that time dilates, but when I ask them if time stops if I remove the battery during that experiment then they are silent. They realize that a clock doesn't represent real time, a clock represents non-real time. So theories like Einstein's theory of gravity and general/special relativity (including E=mc2), time dilation, spacetime, GRAVITATIONAL WAVES, MASSIVE BLACK HOLES, string theory, dark matter, etc are incorrect if time doesn't dilate and if spacetime doesn't exist, a lot of research and education is based on incorrect/fraudulent theories (for more than 100 years). Investigate my claim, it only takes one simple question. Ask physicists if they can explain and prove what time is, that is impossible because they cannot detect time. Millions of physicists are lying because they act as if they know what time is, but they lie because they were brainwashed with fraudulent claims/theories when they were a student. So it's important that physicists admit that they don't know what time is for the sake of the students and humanity, they need to break that devastating vicious circle. Physicists/universities/institutes purposely ignore me, they are silent because the truth undermines their interests but their silence undermines the interests of humanity. Don't fool yourself, nobody knows what time is.

– Best regards, Peter Raktoe

S: All right. So we've got a couple of interesting questions. Brian, this one is just for you. This one comes from Peter from the EU. And Peter writes, "I send this information to journalists, editors worldwide, and I hope that you will share it as well. The students public governments don't realize that millions of physicists are fooling humanity."

BW: That's what we do.

S: "The Nobel prize in physics 2020 is the second Nobel prize in physics for something that cannot exist. Gravitational wave and a massive black hole. And that is a disgrace. Every layman can see that the following is correct. Nobody will be able to refute this. I can claim that gravity affects you because I can see or detect you because I know what you are, because I know that you exist. If I cannot see or detect you, then I cannot claim that gravity affects you. That claim would be a lie. Physicists cannot see or detect time. They don't know what time is. And that means that they don't even know if time exists. So physicists must not claim that gravity affects time. That is a lie." He then goes on to basically say the same thing about six different times. So I'm not going to read the rest of his email, but that's the key of his claim. Physicists have been lying to us because in secret, they really know that time doesn't exist. Brian, you've been deceiving humanity. Fess up. This is your time to fess up.

BW: I mean, what can I say? But he got us. This is it. Guilty as charged. First of all, when you're a theoretical physicist, you get emails like this several times a week. I mean, back when I was starting out, even as a beginning grad student in particle physics, you would show up at your mailbox at the university and there'd be some letter there because they would look through anyone who was a professor or a researcher in that field and just dump them in there. So I'm sure that doesn't surprise you guys. This is like pretty par for the course in terms of-

S: Standard. Yeah, this is pretty standard. So yeah, this guy's a crank, right?

BW: Complete crank.

S: Yes, that's a pretorative, but I think crank is a very specific definition. It's somebody who has, they're usually not professional, but they might be, but they do have a high level of scientific knowledge in one area, let's say. But their major malfunction is that they're not engaging with the scientific community, combined with the fact that their thinking is a little off. There's just something a tad off about their thinking. And because they're not meaningfully engaging with the scientific community, they kind of drift off into fantasy land. But they have this complete lack of humility where they think that they are correct on something and the entire scientific community is wrong. And this usually evolves into a conspiracy because nobody will give them the respect that they know that they deserve, where nobody will even listen to them.

BW: What's interesting about this guy is he's not, I mean, so a lot of physics cranks in particular, it's not just, hey, this is wrong. It's, hey, this is wrong and look at my theory, right? Here's the thing I've been working on. This guy doesn't seem like he has a competing theory. He just thinks that everything is bullshit. I mean, this guy, there's actually a sentence you didn't read in this email, Steve, that I really liked. I just want to excerpt this. "Physicists claim that many experiments prove time dilates, but that is impossible if they don't know what time is. When a clock runs faster in an experiment, then physicists claim that time dilates. But when I ask them if time stops, if I remove the battery during that experiment, then they are silent."

S: Yeah, that stuck out to me as well. He also brings up Einstein. If you mentioned Einstein in your email, it's a 99% chance you're a crank or Galileo.

B: Steve, one quote came to me reading this, this famous maxim, the perfect is the enemy of the good. So yeah, he's right. We don't know exactly what time is, but so what? You don't need a perfect theory about something to advance our predictive powers and understanding of the universe. It doesn't have to be perfect. Look at classic physics. It's incomplete. It is not complete, but we can still land a probe on Pluto using just classical physics. You do not need quantum mechanics to land a probe on Pluto. So that, I think, is what he's missing.

BW: Well, and one thing that is kind of drilled into you as a young physicist is, so you're absolutely right. There's a germ of an interesting question here. What is time? But at a fundamental level, physics isn't philosophy. I mean, obviously there's some interesting overlap, but physics really at its core models things and then makes predictions. And you can be a very successful modeler without having any idea about the deep reasons of why what you're doing is right. So physics is not going to really answer like why, I mean, maybe this is not totally impossible, but it's not going to say why is, why is there gravity? Or something like that.

S: On a metaphysical level, what is the ultimate reality of time? You don't know.

B: But isn't the clock basically a model for time?

S: The clock is an instrument for measuring time.

BW: That's right. And time and space are different in some pretty important ways, of course, right? And the whole time dilation thing, et cetera, is something that is a crucial part of special relativity. The real, like the technical thing that I would say as a physicist is the difference between time and space is a plus or a minus sign and how you're measuring distances in space time. That's kind of a technical answer, but yeah, like you can be a perfectly great physicist and not really care what the deep reason of time is. The other thing that this guy says that I think is really wild is he talks about, oh, if you can't measure it, then it doesn't exist. And he uses gravitational waves as an example, a thing that was indisputably measured many times now, like several times. And even if you don't believe in time, there's just no doubt that people measured ripples in space coming from black hole mergers. If you just had one, I guess you could maybe say, all right, we don't really know it, but now we have several of these. The evidence is just beyond any reasonable doubt as it was with the original measurement anyway. So the guy does not have a leg to stand on here.

B: Yeah. And the other side of that coin, Brian, is the fact that gravitational wave, the theory makes predictions and they detected gravitational waves. And the theory says that there should be a visible electromagnetic component to that, to that event. They looked and there it was, and it was the first time they did the multimodal astrophysics, right? Where there was partially, they had a gravitational wave evidence and electromagnetic spectrum evidence. And one pointed to the other. So what does that mean? It means that they're onto something. It's making predictions that are useful. And that's what's wonderful about it. You don't need to know exactly what a gravitational wave is down to its minutest level.

S: In philosophical terms, this guy is making what we call a category mistake. He is confusing, understanding how something works or that something exists, right? That something exists with a fundamental understanding of exactly how or why it exists. And not understanding the why does not mean you can't with very high confidence know that something does exist. We know time exists. Time has to exist.

B: Or nothing would happen.

C:That's why it was so weird when Brian just said, even if you don't believe in time, I can't even wrap my head around-

E: Time denial is now a thing?

S: What he's saying is that this guy completely misunderstands how science works because science doesn't necessarily describe reality. It makes testable models that make predictions about what we're going to observe or whatever's going to happen. And models either work or they don't work. And we've had this discussion before, does a model have to actually describe reality in order to be useful or does it just have to make predictions? And what was that famous quote, shut up and calculate? Don't worry about whether it's real or not. Just shut up and calculate. You just do your calculations. So yeah, he's making more than one category mistake here. The analogy that occurred to me immediately when I read this was like, this is exactly what I hear from people who say, well, we don't know how consciousness works. It's like, okay, first of all, that's a black and white statement. We know a lot about consciousness, but we don't know exactly how the brain manifests as consciousness. Yes, that's correct. But that's different than saying we don't know that the brain manifests consciousness. We pretty much know that as much as you can know anything in science, even if we didn't know anything about how it did it. But we do know something, just not everything about how it does it. And this is the same thing. We know that time has to be in there somewhere. We can make predictions based upon it. We could measure it, measure the passage of time. And yeah, predictions about how that measurement will be altered in different situations. His taking the battery out of the clock thing was the lamest thing he said.

BW: That may be one of the stupidest things I've heard in a very long time. And the fact that-

S: Yeah, it's like if you break your instrument, does the phenomenon go away? I mean, come on.

BW: And that he holds up as proof of people's incompetence that they stare at him blankly when he asks that question is not doing him any favors.

C: It's not just that they're like, Oh God, somebody has to call security.

S: There might be another reason for that blank stare.

S: Yeah. Okay. Let's go on to question number two.

Email #2: Traffic (1:29:01)[edit]

I am a traffic engineer and love your podcast. Listening to your last podcast regarding electric cars, the impact of traffic on climate change, and the possible use of loan cars as part of the solution made me cringe a bit, especially the optimistic view of self drive and the timeframe of these vehicles being widely used. I suggest you do a deep dive into the world of traffic, as I think you will be surprised and find it quite interesting.

– Wayne Amos Mackay, Queensland, Australia

S: This one comes from Wayne Amos from McKay, Queensland, Australia. And Wayne writes, "I am a traffic engineer and love your podcast. Listening to your last episode regarding electric cars and impact of traffic on climate change and the possible use of lone cars as part of the solution made me cringe a bit, especially the optimistic view of self-drive and timeframe of these vehicles being widely used. I suggested you a deep dive into the world of traffic as I think you'll be surprised and find it quite interesting. Thank you, Wayne." I in fact did do, I mean, I have, I have read about traffic in the past, but I sort of redid a deep dive on it and I decided to make this the science or fiction. So we're going to go on to science or fiction. I'm going to ask you guys three questions about traffic, and then we'll use that as a jumping off point to discuss what the current science says. So let's go on with science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:29:58)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Cruising for parking
Science Increasing road capacity
Self-driving car service
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Cruising for parking
Cruising for parking
Cruising for parking
Self-driving car service
Cruising for parking

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.

Theme: Traffic
Item #1: Careful examination of traffic patterns reveals that, on average, 30% of all traffic in New York City is cruising for a parking space.[6]
Item #2: Multiple studies indicate that increasing road capacity does not reduce traffic in the long run and in some cases may worsen it.[7]
Item #3: Research shows that self-driving cars as a service would significantly increase traffic congestion.[8]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. Then I challenge my panelists to tell me which one is the fake. Again, the theme here is traffic. I'm going to give you three statements about the science of understanding traffic, and you guys have to tell me which one of these is wrong. Ready? Okay, here we go. Item number one, careful examination of traffic patterns reveals that on average 30% of all traffic in New York City is cruising for a parking space. Item number two, multiple studies indicate that increasing road capacity does not reduce traffic in the long run and in some cases may worsen it. And item number three, research shows that self-driving cars as a service would significantly increase traffic congestion. Brian, as our guest you get to go first.

Brian's Response[edit]

BW: All right. So number one, careful examination of traffic patterns reveals that on average 30%, 30% of all traffic in New York City is cruising for a parking space. I mean, that's a pretty high number, but I have to say that tracks with my personal experience of driving in New York. If I had to guess that number normally, I probably would have put that a bit lower. Just even thinking about the size of New York and people, I mean, New York's pretty big and there's highways and stuff like that. So I don't know. That one seems high to me, although anecdotally it agrees with my experience has been driving in New York. Number two, multiple studies indicate that increasing road capacity does not reduce traffic in the long run and in some cases may worsen it. So road capacity means what here? Just number?

S: More lanes, adding another lane, adding another road, just adding the increasing the capacity of the roadway.

BW: I guess I could see that being true if, for example, maybe there's like kind of bottleneck effects if you're not doing it in a uniform way or something like that. So presumably you would take that into account, but it's not totally clear.

S: This is in general. This is in general. This is not in a special circumstance. This is just pretty much any time you increase road capacity.

BW: Oh, I see.

S: It doesn't reduce traffic in the long run. So that's a general rule.

BW: Yeah. I mean, I guess the effect, if that's true, then would be if you increase the road capacity, more people drive and then the traffic kind of stays the same or increases, I guess even. So that one I'm kind of all of these are, I don't know about research shows that self-driving cars as a service would significantly increase traffic congestion congestion. So that one I could see also like the other two, maybe being true. If self-driving cars put more cars on the road, then I could see traffic going up. On the other hand, maybe if there's self-driving cars that can pick up multiple passengers, et cetera, that might decrease it. All right. I'm going to go with, this is really a crap shoot here. I'm going to go with, go with number one, 30% gut just seems high to me for New York.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: I'll take these backwards. So research shows the self-driving cars as a service would significantly increase traffic. You know, the word I don't like is significantly. I do think that when we introduce self-driving cars into a mostly driver car situation, right? So it's like most cars are being driven by a human being. You add driverless cars, it's a totally different behavior. It's a totally different way to drive. The driverless cars will not drive like people, which means that they don't follow normal people patterns.

S: And so just to clarify, this is not just all driving cars, self-driving cars. This is self-driving cars as a service. Where you call a car, it comes and picks you up.

E: Johnny Cab.

J: Yeah.

S: Yeah. Johnny Cab.

J: Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure about this, but I do think even just inserting, I don't there's no numbers here. I don't know what percentage of these, the traffic is going to be considered self-driving. And you know, it's just a statement that says self-driving cars would significantly increase traffic conditions. So it's a little hard to guess without numbers and all that, but I'm thinking that this one is true in the beginning of it. It would increase traffic congestion. Significantly? I don't know. Multiple studies. This is the second one. Multiple studies indicate that increasing road capacity does not reduce traffic. So from my understanding, when you increase road capacity, traffic increases. So like the supply and demand kind of are in lock step with each other. So I think that one is science. And this last one here, which is the first one saying that 30% of traffic in New York city is crazy. I just don't, this one has to be the fake because I mean, not that this qualifies me to know the exact right answer, but I used to live in New York city two different times and I've been there a million times and I've been one of those people cruising for traffic spaces. I absolutely don't think that 30% of the traffic is looking for parking, but they're flat out just isn't that much parking in the city. And most people know it and most people are not going there looking for a park looking for, if you drive a car there you're not just going to wing it. Most of the time you have an idea what neighborhood you're going to be in and is there a place to park? Because I'll tell you right now, every time I tried to wing it, I turned out to be ugly. So I just don't think 30% of the traffic, that's an amazing number of cars. There is no way that that one is science.

S: Okay. Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah. I mean, I think I gotta agree with the guys to keep it short and sweet. I think when you pointed out that you were saying self-driving cars as a service that changed things for me, because at first I was like, no way self-driving cars are definitely going to make traffic better. But you're talking about like Ubers and Lyfts being self-driving, like pick them up people. Well, that's just, I think people are just going to people who don't have cars now who might take the bus are going to be like, well, just call a self-driving Lyft. Like I think ride share services add to traffic. So that one seems like it's true because of that. The thing about increasing road capacity, not reducing traffic is annoying to me, but I could see it being some sort of weird counter intuitive truth. Kind of like Brian was saying before, you were saying before that, like even though road deaths have gone down, the amount of accidents hasn't, or it's maybe gotten worse because people are just like, bah, free lanes. I'm going to drive like an idiot in them. So I don't know. I think it could actually make people worse that they're driving. And that bad driving is in a lot of ways what contributes to traffic. You said when people breaking on the highway, oh, it kills me. It just kills me, you guys. And then so that would say that the fiction is this one about 30% of all traffic in New York being cruising for parking spaces. The reason that I think that that's fiction is A, because Jay's right. If you have a car, you're probably already paying for a space. So unless you're going to a public place, you're going to be looking for space outside of a shop or something like that. But B, I think the vast majority of New York City traffic is cabs. And I don't think cabs are looking for parking spaces. So I don't see that being comporting with truth.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Okay, so 30% traffic. I'm totally buying that. I've spent so much time just looking for a parking space that I'm totally buying it. Road capacity, increasing road capacity. I'm buying that as well. It's like a hard drive. Keep giving me a bigger hard drive, I'm going to keep filling it up. So Jay agrees with me on that one. And number three, self-driving cars as a service. I think you'd be surprised that once we get a certain amount of self-driving cars on the road, I think that's going to do the opposite and decrease traffic congestion because it'd be so efficient. So that's fiction.

S: And Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Well, so people raised really good points all over the place. I shared the same thoughts with many of the people, which I will not repeat. But I'll go with most of the group here and say the New York City one is the fiction. And I'll add a reason why to that that hasn't been touched on yet. So we talked about cabs. Certainly I thought there were a lot of trucks making deliveries and stuff. I don't know if you would consider that parking or not. There's a lot of truck moving in New York. But also the reason this one is fiction is because even if you just take cars and people looking for parking, they're also leaving the city, leaving their parking spots. So any traffic that's departing from the city cannot be considered looking for parking. And we're talking about all traffic in New York City. And that's a big chunk of traffic right there. So that 30 percent just kind of gets really inflated in that context. So I think that one's fiction.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: OK. So you guys all agree on number two. So we'll start there. Multiple studies indicate that increasing road capacity does not reduce traffic in the long run. And in some cases may worsen it. You all think that is science. And that one is science. So the magic phrase there is induced demand, induced demand. And you build it and they will come. If you increase road capacity, people will then start driving in that pathway. So if you think about it this way, each individual driver is going to take the pathway of least resistance whenever they have to get from point A to point B. That's one factor. And also people will, once traffic gets beyond a certain point, people will just not drive. They'll either just go at a different time or they'll do it something else.

B: Back roads or whatever they got to do.

S: Yeah. So if you have this shiny new opened up highway, people will drive on there and they'll do that until you basically get to the same level of traffic that you had before. So initially it decreases traffic congestion. But after even two years, most of the benefits gone and by five years it's back to where it was or maybe even a little worse, depending on the study. But on average-

B: Steve, I actually read about a town that said, screw you guys. And it went from something like a four lane highway and this major highway going through the city and made it like a two lane highway and said that you're going to get used to this. This is better. And it's also better for just like for the environment and the countryside and all that stuff. And it was just not worth it. They found out, they did this study and they like, no, it's not going to help. We're going to actually shrink the size of our highway. And everyone's like, oh, traffic is going to be horrific, but it goes both ways, right? If you make it smaller, the demand will shrink.

S: It absolutely goes both ways. The other thing that happens, once you start to get more traffic along those highways, because you increase capacities, then people are going to put stores there and they're going to put other things there that then people will attract more drivers. And so that's where you can get sort of the makes it even worse than it was before. So it's totally counterintuitive. But the bottom line is we can't solve the problem by just expanding road capacity. Now, the only real question here is, are there limits to this? What if I added 20 lanes?

E: Yeah.

C: Right. And it's a small town.

S: At some point do you-

B: And then you have no town left. Then you have no town.

S: Yeah, but no one does that. So there's no natural world experiment where somebody did something ridiculous like that. But within the realm of like what's actually happening in the real world, increasing capacity, it's almost a one to one. It's really uncanny how people just fill the demand. This is actually interesting because I experienced the same thing with booking patients in my clinic, that there's an induced demand phenomenon going on. It doesn't matter how many attendings we add, the wait time is always the same.

B: That's awesome.

HW: I thought your hard drive analogy was awesome, Bob.

S: It goes down temporarily. Yeah, sure. The hard drives too. I've induced demand on my hard drive. The wait time goes down initially, then goes right back up. People will wait that long. People will tolerate so much traffic.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right, let's go back to item number one. Careful examination of traffic patterns reveals that on average 30% of all traffic in New York City is cruising for a parking space. Bob, you think this one is true. Everyone else thinks this one is the fiction. This one is very interesting because that 30% figure is widely reported as being true. It turns out this is based upon studies that were done in the 1920s.

BW: Wow.

S: There are more modern studies which also show that similar figures, in fact, the range is anywhere from 20 to 70%. However, it depends on the city, depends on the location within the city, but this one is the fiction. Sorry, Bob.

C: Yes, yes.

S: I thought I was going to get more of you on it because this one is so widely reported. I thought that we've-Bob, you've probably said this before, but here's the thing. This is why it's the fiction. The data is looking at streets with parking and you can't extrapolate to the whole city. Yes, if you're looking at a street that has roadside parking, 30% or more of the cars circling that street are looking for a parking space, but most streets like in New York City don't have parking. You can't extrapolate this to all traffic in the city.

C: Right.

S: Yes, so that's why... We actually don't really know because imagine how hard it would be to... How would you do this study? You have to follow cars and see how long are they in the road and do they eventually park? It's kind of tricky to get at this data, but they also look at data where they... When a parking space becomes available, how many cars will pass it before somebody will park in it? There's different ways to get at this data and it is high, but it's only high in those locations where there is parking. The "problem", there's no question that it significantly contributes to traffic. It is a problem. It is significant. The 30% figure is fake, but it is a significant problem. The question is, how do we solve it? Again, just making more parking spaces is the same thing as adding more road capacity. You're going to have induced demand. The problem with parking space is actually the same as the problem with roads, and that is that they're both free. I'm talking about a parking garage. We're talking about parking on the street. Street parking is usually free.

C: Not in New York.

S: If you have something that's free or cheap or really cheap, so it's so cheap that it's not a negative motivator, but it's also scarce, then that produces the congestion where people are trying to get the scarce, cheap, or free resource. What's the solution? First of all, there's no one simple solution to either the parking problem or the congestion problem. There's multiple things that you have to do. One interesting thing, probably one of the few things that actually there's evidence to show that it works, is you have to charge for it. If you have congestion prices, you have to pay to enter New York City during high congestion times, for example, or if the street parking that is causing congestion becomes more expensive, that's what will motivate people not to do it. You charge a toll on this road during rush hour.

C: Parking in LA is almost exclusively not free. It is very rare.

BW: That's right. That's the big difference is, yeah, for sure. A lot of cities, like London, for example, have those congestion zones, which work great.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Let's go on to number three, and then we'll talk more about the whole issue in general. Number three, research shows that self-driving cars as a service would significantly increase traffic congestion. That one is science. There's multiple studies which show that that's the case. Now, this is just self-driving cars without doing other infrastructure changes or other changes that would mitigate it. This is just if we just went to what we currently have, but with self-driving cars as a service. The problem is that the cars end up spending 40% or more of their time between drivers, so they're on the street, getting to the next driver or waiting to be called. Also, there's a motivation for a self-driving car, and this is the same thing with Uber drivers and Lyft drivers, so it's the same exact problem, is that they're motivated, one, not to park because parking may cost them money, and two, they're motivated to drive slowly because they don't want to drive very fast. You have slow-driving cruising cars waiting to be called upon or that are going to the next customer, and that significantly increases congestion and traffic. That's not a good thing. If we do want to go to a car as a service model, we need to actually change the infrastructure to make it work. Even if somebody brought up, what if they take multiple passengers? Even when they pick up multiple passengers, it reduces the problem, but it's still worse than people owning their own cars in terms of the traffic. Yeah, it's still worse. That effect is massive. Now, what you were talking about, Bob, is different. That is self-driving cars coordinating with each other in order to make decisions about where to go, what path to follow, and taking that decision-making out of the hands of people.

B: Why wouldn't this include that?

S: Well, again, even with that effect, the problem is spending 40% of their time with no person in the car. That's the problem. That effect is so huge, it's not mitigated by anything else.

B: Yeah, but my car sits in the parking lot at work when I used to go to work for eight hours not doing anything.

S: It's parked. It's not cruising around the street waiting for you to call it to go home. That's the difference. We talked about this actually recently on the show. When a certain percentage of cars are self-driving, they could actually coordinate with each other and direct the flow of traffic to optimally use roads. The problem is that drivers are making individual decisions. Everyone's trying to minimize their own travel time, but that creates a meta-pattern, an emergent pattern of traffic that's not optimal. That's where you get congestion, because everyone's trying to use that most efficient path. But then, of course, it becomes congested, and there's no way for people to coordinate. But if you had self-driving cars that were all networked together and cars could be directed in order to maximally spread them out, that could have a significant reduction in traffic and congestion. But again, it's a matter of taking that decision-making out of the hands of individual drivers and putting it in the hand of a coordinated network.

C: If it was coordinated to, Steve, they could minimize that 40%.

S: Yeah, you could reduce it, but you probably wouldn't eliminate that. But that's an interesting thing. We have to see, could it actually eliminate that negative factor?

C: I think it could in a city like LA or New York, because Uber and Lyft basically don't have that issue now. My driver will already have chosen a pickup before I've even gotten out of his car, and it's like a block away from me, because they do it based on location.

S: That's great, but the studies that have existed, there are studies out there. The one I just looked at was in Chicago. So again, you're right, this is all very city-specific. But at least in the Chicago one, Uber and Lyft significantly increased congestion for the same reason. And there are other studies as well. It'd be interesting to do an LA study. So then the question is, how do we fix all this? Again, self-driving cars can help. First of all, we have to get out of this loop of, let's just build more lanes, build more lanes, because that's not going to do it. What we have to do is change behavior. You change behavior basically with money. You have to make it the things we don't want people to do more expensive, and the things we do want them to do less expensive. But also designing cities. So here's another question, and that is, what about just public transportation? So buses, trains, subways, won't that help? Won't that help decongest it? And it does help, but actually people prefer to call Uber than they do to take the subway.

C: Of course.

BW: Especially now.

S: So just putting public transportation into place doesn't really fix the problem either. Again, you're just getting another form of induced demand.

C: And it also is, again, like you said, city-specific. Public transit in LA is getting better, but we just can't have the same infrastructure that New York has, because we're big. Yeah, it just doesn't work the same way.

BW: The trains here are great if you go where they go, and the buses are... You get one bus an hour most of the time on major routes. It's just unusable.

C: But you're so right about the trains if you need to go where they go, which is not that many places yet.

BW: That's right.

C: That's the hard thing. If you do, they're fantastic. You end up having to drive to the train a significant amount.

BW: We do that all the time. We drive to the train. I mean, not now, but we used to drive to the train, then take it downtown because it just took less time.

S: Yeah, so basically what a lot of the experts were saying that I was reading is each city has to come up with a plan that works for them. And one other factor that might help is spacing out work start and end times. If everyone has to be at work at nine, that's a problem. But if some people go in at eight, some at nine, some at 10, and at least it spreads it out a little bit, how do you get people to use the roads when they're not used and decompress the rush hour?

C: Right. You can make the tolls cheaper. There are all sorts of... One thing that I really like about LA's traffic mitigation efforts, because they have crazy smart traffic people on the case, is that they do things in the city that I never had seen anywhere else in the country until I moved here. There are lights at the on ramps and off ramps to the freeway, which most cities don't have.

S: Well, that's another one, is metering entry into high traffic areas. So you only let one person in every 20 seconds or something. And you would think that while you're just being slowed down at that point, but it actually keeps the rest of traffic moving. And so the transit time for any individual driver goes way down.

C: It's a huge help. And then we also have these anti-gridlock zones all over the city where you can't turn left, because we don't have that many left arrows, and where you can't park between seven and nine, and again, between four and six on that street. So it opens up an entire lane to traffic, which I know we just talked about this problem. But at least you're not driving around parked cars.

S: Nobody cruising for parking, yeah.

C: Right, yeah.

S: Exactly. And then the other thing that I think the other meta lesson here is whatever you do, you've got to study it and see what the effect is. Because there's counterintuitive effects, there's complicated, unintended consequences. You have to do something, see what happens. If it works, great. But if it doesn't work or if it makes things worse, come up with something else. But you can't just be stuck in a feedback loop that's not working.

C: Which is so hard when you're pouring literally millions of infrastructure dollars into something. That's why we have to have evidence-based policy. Don't do the study after you've put the plan in place.

S: Or you do a pilot.

C: Study the plan beforehand.

S: Yeah, but you could also do a pilot. Let's try it here and see if it works. And then if it works, then you could open it up to other locations. All right. Thank you, Wayne, for that email, which spawned the science fiction. I think that's the first time I've done that is basically use a question as a basis for a science fiction.

J: So Steve, we talked so much, I forgot, who won?

C: All of us but Bob.

J: What was that again? I didn't hear that. What?

S: Stop it. Stop it. Jay, your turn will come.

B: What did Jay say? I'm playing a game here. What's going on?

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:54:41)[edit]

All models are wrong, but some are useful.
George Box (1919-2013), British statistician

S: All right, Evan, give us a quote. In this quote, I think by a little bit of a coincidence, tracks back to something you were just talking about.

E: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It was suggested by a listener. I want to read the quote and then I want to read the little message you sent with the quote. Okay. Here it is. "All models are wrong, but some are useful." And that's a quote from George Box. George Edward Pelham Box, FRS, was a British statistician who worked in the areas of quality control, time series analysis, design of experiments, and Bayesian interference. He's been called one of the great statistical minds of the 20th century. And here's the quick little read from the message that came along with this quote. He said, "This is a well-known quote often referenced by statisticians to remind them that inevitably our best attempts at modeling the real world are wrong. We should always keep this in mind when drawing conclusions. I think this meshes very well with the idea of science as a whole. That is that it is an error correcting process, which at any point in time seeks the least wrong answer as Steve often reiterates." And that's from Will in London. Thank you, Will.

S: Right. And as we were saying before, that's like the ultimate test of a scientific model, if you will, is how useful it is. And we all know that everything is an approximation of reality. Nothing is the actual reality.

J: Hey, Brian.

BW: Yes.

J: I just want to say good luck with the new album, man.

BW: Oh, thanks so much.

E: Yeah.

BW: Thanks guys for having me on. This was awesome.

S: Yeah, it was fun. It was great having you as always. And I look forward to working with you and the other guys on our game show thing. Well, hopefully we'll have an announcement to make about that soon.

BW: Yeah.

S: All right. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

C: Thanks Steve.

E: Thank you, Steve.

BW: Thanks Steve.


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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