SGU Episode 360

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SGU Episode 360
9th June 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

Venus transit.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 359                      SGU 361

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance - the idea that anything is possible.

Ray Bradbury

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 6th 2012, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson,

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey, guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Buona sera, everyone.

S: Buona sera. How are you doing, Evan?

E: Just fine. Relaxed, back from vacation and ready to go.

R: That's right!

S: You'd rather be in Italy, though, right?

R: How was it?

E: Well... Exotic. It was wonderful. Great time, saw a lot of stuff: Vatican City, Pompeii, Capri Isle of Capri. It was really great; great time.

This Day in Skepticism (00:47)[edit]

R: Well, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news after that nice vacation, but today's This Day in Science is kind of a downer, because today, the day that we're recording this, June 6th, Ray Bradbury died at the age of-

B: That sucks!

J: How old was he?

R: He was 91 years old.

B: Whoa.

E: 91 years young.

J: Can't complain.

R: At least, you know, at least he had a good long life. We can be thankful for that. He turned out a lot of great works in that time. He got a lot of kudos. Our listeners are probably most familiar with his works like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. Oddly, he says Fahrenheit 451 was his only science fiction book. He had an interesting definition-

B: What?

R: -of science fiction, so he always maintained that he was not a science fiction writer, even though they put that on all of his books, "greatest science fiction writer ever".

S: Yeah


B: Wow, didn't know that

E: Helped sell a lot of those books, yeah.

S: Yeah, The Martian Chronicles, that's not science fiction? Come on.

R: He says that's it's fantasy, because it couldn't actually happen, and he thinks that science fiction should just be about what could possibly happen.

S: Oh, I see.

R: You know, that said, I think everyone will continue to remember him as one of the greatest science fiction writers ever.

E: And prolific. What, 50 full books, 600 short stories and essays, and that's all he did. Wrote and wrote and wrote some more.

R: Yeah, and his short stories are my favorite; I prefer his short stories to his longer works, personally.

B: Yeah, me too.

E: He's a descendant of Mary Bradbury, who was a- well, she was found to be a witch during the Salem Witch Trial years.

R: Yeah

E: And she was actually persecuted, arrested but never- sentence was never carried out; they kept delaying it and delaying it until she escaped; she made a getaway, until the whole brouhaha with witches went away. She was able to expire on her own terms. So, I thought that was interesting. Never knew that before about him.

B: Wow.

R: Another interesting Ray Bradbury fact: On Letters of Note today they included a letter from Bradbury in which he discussed how he originally came to write Fahrenheit 451. He was trying to find office space and he was unable to find it anywhere, and so he happened to go past a university library and he heard the tick-tack of typewriters coming from down below. And he realized that in the basement of the library, they rented out typewriters for 10 cents an hour, so he gathered up all of his dimes, which amounted to less than $10 and he went down to the library basement and he sat down and he ended up writing Fahrenheit 451 in a couple of days, basically.

B: Whoa.

E & J: Wow.

R: He wrote 25,000 words in just a few days. Nine days is how many days he says it took him, and it was the UCLA library, I should mention. And here's what he wrote in this letter:

How could I have written so many words so quickly? It was because of the library. All of my friends, all of my loved ones were on the shelves above and shouted, yelled and shrieked at me to be creative. So I ran up and down the stairs, finding books and quotes to put in my "fireman novella". You can imagine how exciting it was to do a book about book-burning in the very presence of the hundreds of my beloveds on the shelves. It was the perfect way to be creative. That's what the library does.[1]

J: Wow.

S: Yeah, it's definitely a classic; I really enjoyed that book. I could also see how he wrote it in nine days.

E: (laughs) What are you saying?

J: I get that; it makes sense.

S: You know, it's- There's one big idea in that book, you know? It's cool; it's great, but you could just see that it was written that way.

R: Yeah, I don't think it's his best work; like I say, I much prefer his short stories and I think that Fahrenheit 451- you know, it's like, it's a polemical novel, which is not necessarily going to be- it's good for being the most well-read amongst junior high school students, and for good reason, but isn't necessarily the best read for adults.

B: Should we explain what typewriters are to people?


B: I guess most people know.

E: A good point!

B: Most people should know.

E: They can Google it.

J: When he wrote that, there was no such thing as a print button.

R: (chuckles) Right.

S: Yeah.

E: He was kind of anti-technology, especially at the end; he felt that there was "too much Internet", as he said, too much cell phone use, and he was- he felt it was kind of taking away from our ability to really have meaningful conversations with each other. He was definitely an analog man, you know, and as the years went on, got stuck in the digital times, but- you know, he's a classic, no doubt about it, you had' to admire him.

R: I think he said- didn't he say that there are "too many Internets", isn't that his quote?

E: Yeah, I think he did say that.

J: Well, that's pretty much the only way you could say that.

R: (chuckles) That's true. He was a bit dystopian, I think, in his outlook on technology, because he would- he saw technology as a way of distancing ourselves and of limiting human communication, when in fact, I think we would all agree that it actually does the opposite in a lot of ways. But he would see- you know, he mentioned once- I read a bit about him seeing a man and a woman walking along the street and the woman had a- she was carrying a little radio and she had a- like an earbud in her ear and he was marveling at how the guy next to her might not have even existed. It didn't even matter because she was listening to far-off voices from a distant land. And to him that signaled something really terrible, this lack of connection with other people in the real world, but I think that he was a little short-sighted in that regard, a little too pessimistic.

E: He was 91 in the end, you know, so we're talking several generations.

S: That's a hard transition to make for people who lived most of their life in the pre-digital age.

R: Yeah.

J: I think part of it is true. You know, we've all been in a situation where you've been with a family member or friends or whatever and everyone's sitting there on their iPhone.

R: Yeah

J: It's OK to admit that, you know, any big technological advancement doesn't necessarily mean it's an improvement on all- all over the board, it's-

R: Right, but also, I think you need to be not so quick to say that a change is automatically bad; maybe it's not the end of the human race if we spend more time talking to people around the world instead of the people right in front of us; I don't know. It does annoy the shit out of me when people open up their cell phones at dinner, but...

S: Right.

E: Well, like Professor Farnsworth said, he said, "technology isn't inherently evil; it's how it's used, like the death ray."


B: The death ray...

News Items[edit]

Show #360: SGU Comes Full Circle (8:00)[edit]

S: Well, today is another milestone; this one a very positive one. This is episode number 360. So if we are going to use arbitrary numbers as milestones for our show we might as well choose one with a mathematical bent.

R: Might as well

B: Yay, what a great idea!

S: The SGU, as they say, has come full circle.


E: Officially.

S: The history of the number 360 is actually pretty interesting. Do you know why there are 360 degrees in a circle?

R: I've heard it's because of the Babylonians; 'cause they used a 60-

B: Nobody really knows!

S: Yeah, it's not- There's no definitive answer. The Babylonians, that's one hypothesis; they used the sexagecimal system, a 60-based system.

J: What was that again?

E: Woo-hoo!

B: Sexagecimal!

E: Sexy genital system.


B: Yeah. It's a base 60 numbering system, like our base 10; binary's base 2. What they did was they would- when they were messing around with circles they would use an equilateral triangle; they would put it into a circle and the side- two of the sides would be the radius of the circle-

E: Radius. Radii.

B: So if you took that and divided it by 60, which they would naturally do because of their sexagecimal numerical system, then you'd have a degree; there's your one degree. So that could definitely have been one of the main reasons why we use it; that's why they did it, but there's lots of other reasons- like one is 360 is pretty damn close to 365 (and a quarter) days in a year so that's another thing, that's another good reason, it's really close to that. And the other one that I think is probably one of the main reasons why it's stuck around is 'cause 360 is so easily divisible; it's got 24 divisors; it's only one of the 7 numbers that have more divisors than any number twice itself[2]. Well, that's kind of esoteric but it's divisible by every number 1 to 10 except 7. I mean, there's so many different ways to chunk it up that I think that's one of the reasons why it's stuck around so long, and the other one-

S: Well, so is 60 itself; I mean, the sexagecimal system did come about partly because 60 is divisible by so many numbers, including 1 through 6.

B: Right. Well, the other good one- get this one: the 24 time zones. Think about the 24 time zones: you divide them by 15 degrees of longitude and there you've got your 24 hour- your 24 hours, based in different time zones, separated by 15 degrees of longitude. So that's perfect; that really just kind of like meshes nicely, so-

R: I found this, and I'm just going to read this to you because I'm not good at math and I- it takes me a long time to figure out what this actually means, so. This is from

There is more to this than the six sixes for the 360 from the Babylonians. It has to do with Claudius Ptolemy (100-170 AD), who divided the circle into 360 parts for his sine table. He actually used the length of the chord for each central angle in steps of 1/2 degree in a circle of radius 60 rather than sines.[3]

R: So I don't know what that means but I thought I would offer it.

E: Ptolemy. I got that part.

S: That's what Bob was saying; you know, the chord is the base of the equilateral triangle with the other two sides being the radii. And yeah, so there's six of them around a circle, and that gives you 360. Do you know what you call a unit smaller than a degree, if you have to divide a degree up- Bob, you know.

B: Yes.

R: Of course Bob knows. Shut up, Bob.

J: A sub-degree?

S: It's a- well, you start with an arcminute; there are 60 arcminutes in one degree.

E: So it must be an arcsecond.

S: And there are 60 arcseconds in an arcminute. So, that's 3600 arcseconds in one degree.

E: Sweet.

B: So what would you do if you want more precision than that, Steve?

S: You do fractions of seconds.

B: Well, you do decimals.

S: Decimals. I meant decimals of seconds.

B: And then you could- And that's commonly done today, but in the past, some scientists would actually subdivide the arcsecond into pieces- into 60ths, and they would just denote that by using a Roman numeral like a III and then a IV but nobody really does that anymore but it's just decimal versions of the arcsecond.

S: Right.

E: Hey speaking of Roman numerals, the Roman numeral for 360 is CCCLX, right? So you go five letters there, three of which are the same and two are different. Kinda like this show! We got three Novellas, three Cs; I'll be the L, and Rebecca, you can have the X.

R: I'm gonna need two.

S: Yeah, I think so.

E: (laughs)

R: You're really getting into some Bible Code territory; this is interesting. We could develop a whole conspiracy theory of SGU and 360.

S: The numerology of 360.

R: There's actually this crazy person who- he hasn't emailed me in a while but for the last few weeks he's been really into me. If you go to

E: What?!

B: Oh, yeah.

R: That's E-T-corn-gods dot com. It's this guy who thinks that- I mean it's kind of sad; there's something seriously wrong with him. But he assigns numerical values to letters, and then adds them together, and you know, finds all of these different conspiracy theories and things like that.

E: Yeah, the Unabomber used to do that too. Look where that wound up.

R: And I'm on his site. So, like, he decoded my name and-

J: Uh-oh.

E: And?

R: -and I'm sure if you email him, he'll decode yours as well.

J: Well, so what's it mean?

R: Actually, I'm trying to find it right now; I might have deleted his crazy-person emails. His name's George Simpson[4].

S: Simpson, eh?

E: I don't know we if should be talking about his name. ET corn hole is another-

B: That reminds me of the Anti-Christ and Caesar Nero and supposedly if you use numerology, Caesar Nero equals 666; 666 is one of those theories, which is a coincidence because today-

S: Is June 6.

B: Because, June 6; so, 6 AM June 6, that's the hour that Damien was born in The Omen from back in the '70s, the first release of The Omen. For some reason that just stuck with me and I always remember that every June 6. I mean, I might not be awake at 6 AM but I remember it on June 6: "Hey, it's 666 day!"

E: Forget that it's D-Day, but yeah, it's Omen Day.

B: Anti-Christ Day.

R: I found what he wrote about me, it's actually- he has another blog called and there-

E: Oh, that's better.

R: -he's translated my name. It's a long line of things but it ends with-

B: Let me guess! Your name translates into "unicorn rainbow"?

R: I wish. No, it's so much better, though; it's "red-headed goddess wacko ms. laugh at male ego". (laughs) Which is-

B: Oh my God, wow!

E: He needed a code?

R: I could have just told him, really. Although, I'm hesitant to tell him that my hair's not red anymore; it's blue, and I'm interested in seeing how that screws up his code. But anyway, we should-

B: He's probably just reading it wrong.

R: We probably should let him know this is our 360th show and he'll probably find something interesting.

S: Some significance.

E: Yeah, great, exactly what we want. Thanks, Rebecca.

B: I could guarantee it.

R: No problem.

Transit of Venus (15:40)[edit]

NASA: 2012 transit of Venus

S: So did any of you guys see the transit of Venus on June 5th?

E: My eyes are still burning.

B: Oh yeah, baby! That was awesome.

S: What method did you use, Bob?

B: I used- I found a telescope that I think Uncle Bob gave me, like, decades ago. Now, I was really upset because all day yesterday it was raining; it was overcast, and I was like, "OK, here's yet another astronomical event that's going to totally screw me because of the weather, which totally sucks." Like, every year on Jay's birthday, the Perseid meteor showers- every year for the past 14 years! Not just a couple years in a row; 14 years in a row, it's been overcast. So I'm like, "all right, I'm totally screwed again." But then I was driving home and the sun was peeking out between the clouds and I'm like "oh boy, I might actually have a chance." Keep in mind that it's like I'm within half an hour of the sun setting, so it's like time is of the essence. So, I called my girlfriend Kate and said, "get the telescope and get a piece of paper." So I got home, met her on the front lawn, and she's trying to focus the image from the little tiny telescope that's hand-held; it's just a tube, it's really just a foot-long tube telescope, but it did the job. She focused it onto a white piece of paper and we're standing there trying to get it- waiting for the sun to poke out and then like, focusing it on the paper. And at first we're like "oh, we can't see anything", and I had read this was actually a very bad method to actually see Venus because it would be too blurry. But we saw the faintest brown speck near the edge, and I got so excited, I called Jay and his wife, Courtney, and they were upstairs and they were like, "Jay, you got minutes. Get down here right now if you want to see Venus." So they come running out, it was so funny. And so we're looking at it; I'm taking some pictures with my phone, which are the worst pictures ever of Venus transiting the sun ever. I'll post it on Facebook; it is the lamest, but you can kind of see this like two-pixel speck of shadow that is Venus-

J: I thought it was really cool, Bob.

B: It was awesome. Yeah, but Jay, then today I went online and I saw, like, professional pictures. Oh my God. Especially-

E: Awesome stuff.

B: Especially the SDO, the Solar Dynamic Observatory images. Oh my God.

J: Come on, Bob.

R: Well, you can't compete with that.

B: I know, it's a spaceship that's probably-

R: But there- I saw a lot that- a lot people got some really great images using... you know, the pinhole, things like that.

B: Yeah, if you've got proper equipment, it looked great.

J: Let me put it to you like this: there is no jankier way to do it than the way we did it and it was still awesome.

S: Jay, I might have beat you. I just held binoculars in my right hand and a white cardboard thing with my left hand in front and I just focused the binoculars on the cardboard and it worked perfectly fine. You get two images of the sun; you gotta focus it by making the distance correct. It was bouncing around a little bit, but you could clearly see the black dot of Venus in front of the disk of the sun. It was awesome, but again, it was binoculars and cardboard.

B: That's pretty cool, Steve, but again, I think we had the jankiest, as Jay put it.

R: Well, let me tell you, one way that did not work was not having binoculars or a telescope. I went to our local science museum because they were having a little event and it was- by the time I got there, it had sold out, but they were still- there was a sign that said, you know, we're sold out but you can come inside, we'll give you a free pair of glasses so you can view it from the lawn. And so, I went in to get the glasses and they said that they were sold out of those too! They'd given away all of their glasses. But it was actually, it was kind of cool because the museum was just flooded with families that had turned out to see it, and you know- just a really incredible diversity of families, too, so, it was really impressive that apparently- like, the schools and the local news and such did a good job of getting the word out that this was happening and there were a lot of little kids that were super excited to see it, so.

S: Yeah, it was a great opportunity; I got one of my daughters with me at the time. She was totally excited to see this little speck on the brighter speck on the cardboard. 'Cause I explained to her what it was-

E: Look at the speck!

S: -and it was cool; they were very excited about it.

J: When you do stuff like this with Bob, he's amazingly excited. He's like bouncing up & down; he's like "Oh my God! Oh! Oh, look! Awesome!" and then randomly, Bob's like, "Jay, are you aware this will never happen for another 125 years?"

S: It's only 105 years.

J: 105. All right.

B: No, you're both wrong. 105.5 and also, it also can- the length of time can be 121.5. The next one will be 105.5, so, December 11th, 2117.

E: Mark your calendar.

B: And, I will get a much better picture for that one, and-

J: In your hovering wheelchair, right? "Look at that!"

B: Even better, if things-

E: From your frozen tube.

B: If things go according to plan, I may be on Venus when it happens again.


J: Wait, wait, Bob, now you've gotta figure out- you gotta figure out if there's anything else astronomical happening with the Earth at that point so we see some other thing looking at the Earth.

B: Yeah, that'd be- (laughing) yeah, right.

E: Bob, make sure you wave to us when you're there.

B: Oh, I will; I'll shine a really bright bright laser at the Earth so everyone looking at Venus will say, "Oh, that must be Bob."

J: Bob, remember you and I used to joke around a lot about, in the future we would be able to communicate to each other just by making a beep noise?

B: Yeah, right.

E: It was two weeks ago.

R: What?

J: Bob and I'd be like, walk into a room and I'd look at him and it would be like I'm just downloading every single thing that happened to me since the last moment I saw him and I'm transmitting it in a second; I would just look at him and go "boop". Like that.


E: Oh, God. I think Bradbury was right.

B: Petabytes in a nanosecond.

E: Ray Bradbury was right.

S: What do you guys know about the transit of Venus in 1882?

R: Not a whole lot.

S: It was pretty exciting. 1882; there was one before that in 1874, so they typically occur in pairs. Then there was 1769 and 1761.

B: Separated by 8 years.

S: Yeah, by 8 years. In 1882, that one was actually pretty momentous because that was the first time astronomers were able to calculate, using geometry-

B: Wait, Steve.

S: Yeah?

B: I thought the same thing, and then I found out other websites that said 1762 was when they sent the ships out to precisely time the transit so that they could then infer or determine how far away Venus is, how far away the sun is, and then how big the solar system is. So I've actually got some discrepancy there, so I'm not sure if it was in the 1800s or if it was the 1760s that that actually happened; I've seen both cases-

S: I've seen multiple sources say that 1882 is when they measured the astronomical unit, but-

B: Yeah, that's the first one I read, but- yeah, so, I just want to prevent emails and stuff, but if you've read multiple-

S: Yeah, but they could all be deriving from the same source.

B: I know. The point, the point was, that either from the 18th or 17th or 18th or 19th century, they actually calculated that, "whoa, wait, with this Venus transit coming up, if we send ships to the four corners of the planet, like, literally, and have them measure precisely- as precisely as they could, of course with the technology that they had- when Venus- what's the term they use for when it-

E: Hits the edge?

B: It broaches- breaches the outer limb of the sun. If they could determine- if they could actually time it, then they all got back together; they put all their calculations together so then they were able to triangulate all these distances to the sun, to Venus, and then from there they could- you know, the size of the solar system. They actually came up with pretty much the modern conception of the modern determination of how far away the sun is. They said it's 93 to 97 million miles away. Well, yeah, that's damn close, 'cause it's like 93 on average. So yeah, that was a milestone, that was huge, huge, just based on the transit of Venus going in front of the sun. So that was a milestone.

S: Again, maybe everyone is just assuming it was the most recent one in 1882, but it was really one of the other recent ones, but- in one of those previous transits of Venus was the first time that an atmosphere was observed around another planet.

J: Very cool.

S: They were able to see it from the sun shining through.

B: Well- If you want to go a little further with that, have you guys heard about the arc of Venus? (deep voice) I'm sure you have, Steve. This is really cool. In 2004, some scientist- some astronomer took an image of Venus- this is during the transit, the most recent transit before yesterday's, in 2004- and he saw this weird semi-circular arc of light rising above the atmosphere on Venus and it was- a lot of astronomers were like, "what the hell is that?" And this is a weird case of a minor mystery that could potentially solve an even greater Venus mystery with this most recent transit yesterday. I guess it was pretty quickly they found out this arc of Venus was caused by refracted light when Venus is backlit by the sun. So it's just refra- a basic atmospheric effect but the interesting thing is that- with this- now that we know about this arc of Venus and what's causing it, we might be able to figure out this phenomenon of Venus called super-rotation. Did you guys know- I wasn't quite aware of this- the entire atmosphere of Venus circles, goes around 360 degrees of venus every four days? Four Earth days. Now, just to put that into perspective, it happens on Earth every 243 days. So that's why they call it super-rotation. We're not sure why, why is it so fast? And the way this is related to this whole arc of Venus is that the arc is caused by refraction within that middle layer atmosphere of Venus called the mesosphere and that mesosphere, you know, it's causing the arc and that mesosphere is actually, they think, a major player in the physics of super-rotation. So, if you know- the more you know about the arc of Venus, the more you know about the mesosphere, and the more you can learn about the super-rotation and why it's happening and what exactly is going on. Now back in 2004, they weren't ready to examine this arc; they weren't anticipating it, so they didn't really have everything set up to optimize, to really examine the hell out of this thing with the proper- the proper optics. Well, this year, yesterday, they did; they examined the hell out of it, and I have no idea what they found out, but when they do announce the findings about this arc of Venus, then we'll report it on the show and we'll see what they learned.

Legislating Science (26:52)[edit]

Neurologica: Legislating Science in North Carolina

S: All right, well, let's move on. So, legislators in North Carolina are causing some more anti-science hubbub, although this one is not about evolution. It's about sea-level rise. This is a classic case of legislators trying to meddle in the practice of science. So, get this: The state house of North Carolina has proposed a bill that says- that has to do with on the effect of climate change on sea levels, and therefore coastlines. North Carolina has a lot invested in coastlines. And it includes this provision, under Section 2.

These rates - meaning the rates of sea-level rise - shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

B: Whaaat?

E: So they're writing the science.

S: Yeah, so that's like, "oh, pi is 3". We're just going to decide that pi is 3 and that's the way it is. So they're saying-

E: And there's the law.

S: There's two things in there- well, there's three, really- The two big things are: One is that you can't use models or any kind of simulations or anything to predict sea-level rise; you can't take into consideration what's actually happening in the world; you have to extrapolate from historical data. And, the second thing is, that extrapolation has to be linear.

B: Ah. What the hell? Why not just go with the consensus of scientists-

S: 'Cause they don't like-

B: -that know what they're talking about.

S: They don't like what that says.

R: They saw the consensus and they said, "You know what? That's not what we want."

S: We don't like that. Because it's crazy. So, it's partly because property values on the Outer Banks are- have a lot to do with predictions about whether or not they're going to be underwater in 50 years. And so, they didn't want those pesky scientists saying that sea-level rises are going to be obliterating their coastlines.

R: I think it's more than partially about that; I think it's almost entirely about that. From what I've read- and correct me if I'm wrong- the groups that are in favor of this bill are groups like the Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, which and I quote from an article in Star News Online, "represents the interests of home builders and developers in the Wilmington area. They oppose the use of accelerated sea-level rise as a planning benchmark because they say that it could affect residential and commercial construction, piers, docks, public infrastructure, and other projects."[5] The thing is, they're specifically promoting this bill because it serves their short-term interests and there are other people who are protesting the bill because they're in favor of science and also because following the science will help with long-term interests, like, you know, Business Alliance for a Sound Economy claim they're looking out for public infrastructure, but the fact of the matter is, that's the thing that would be most affected if you ignore the science.

S: Right. Get the science right.

E: Right. They're hamstringing themselves! They're putting themselves in a bad position. "Whoa whoa, build here, do this", right? Based on this information, but instead, the actual models, real science models, will destroy whatever they build, potentially, or you know, give them all kinds of problems.

J: Doesn't it also imply that they're deliberately deciding that they just don't like the information, right?

S: Yeah. Yeah.

R: Well, yeah. It's not just that they don't like it; it's that the information is economically disastrous for them.

B: Right.

E: They think so, I think that's- they're mistaken totally in that.

R: Yeah, the thing is, it will have an economical impact, but that's in the short term. What they're worried about is for instance, roads that adhere to what the science tells us sea levels are going to be doing will create a sort of barrier; they're going to be several feet above the ocean. So, that's going to cost, first of all, a huge amount of money in raising up all the roads and any houses and anything else that's built. So, that right there will cause a huge economic impact. But in the long term, this sort of ordination determines where you can build things like sewage treatment plants and other things like that that have longer lifespans than just houses and hotels and things like that. So, in the long term, yeah, this is actually going to protect us economically, assuming that the scientists' projections are correct. But what these- what this bill is about is protecting short-term economic interests of local businesses.

B: Actually, guys, do you feel the same way I do? That makes me feel microscopically better than my first knee-jerk reaction to this, which was that these are just some anti-science yahoos, and that's their main motivation: they just don't trust science; they're anti-science; they believe in all this crazy stuff, and that was the first thing I thought. But now that it's purely for economic-

S: Yeah, but it's so brazen. It's so brazen; I mean, dictating the methods of science like that?

B: It is, right.

S: The International Panel on Climate Change [sic] has put out a paper on projections of sea-level rise over the next hundred years. They have different quote-unquote "scenarios", right? Different ways in which climate change can play out over the next hundred years and how things can interact with each other, and they're actually fairly conservative in that they are- most of the scenarios use linear projections or extrapolations of glacial melt. So in a way they actually already are being conservative in that way, and then even then they come up with a range of 18-59 centimeters sea-level rise by the end of the century- of this century. But it's possible that there may be some game-changers in there; at some point- this is not even considering something like, you know, the Greenland ice sheet slips into the North Atlantic; that's not accounted for in any of these scenarios. It's just if the glacial melt continues at the same rate. So it could actually even be much, much worse, depending on variables that they're- like a significant increase in the rate of glacial melt, which they're not including in that projection. So that's- even with these conservative scenarios, it's still 18-59 is the range. But what the bill wants to do is to not even look at model of climate change or of how the climate works, it's a- I don't know how they decided or how they justified saying this, that you could only use historical data, and not models, and that the extrapolation should be linear. Why linear? That's completely arbitrary.

E: Because they misunderstand; they don't have a clue.

S: Deciding how to extrapolate trends into the future is the whole game, you know, when you're asking these types of questions.

R: See, I think they do have a clue though, in a way. I think what they've done is- someone has looked at the data and said, "Well, yeah, if you go by their data, this is what it's going to show. But if you just go linearly, then that gives us the result we want." So, it's not just that they're ignorant of the science-

S: No, I said brazen. They're brazen.

R: Yeah, I'm just saying, it's not that- you know, Evan was saying you know- a lot of the implication's that they just don't know better or that they just don't know the science, but I think they may very well know the science, but they've come up with a clever way - or what they think is a clever way - to ignore the science.

B: And save their bottom line, yeah.

E: Well, that's just short term

J: But it's temporary; that's the whole thing that blows my mind is like they're temporarily putting a Band-Aid on something that's just going to come back and bite them in the ass later on down the road.

S: Yeah, but they won't be in office when that happens.

R: Yeah, they're hoping they'll be dead by then.

B: Plus, short-term thinking like that is not surprising any more.

R: Unfortunately.

Science Education (35:40)[edit]

California Governor Proposes Cuts[edit] Second Year Science Graduation Requirement Elimination: Governor Stands Firm
OC Register: Calif. students rank 47th in science

S: But wait, we have more bad news about science in our culture.

B: Waah

S: Evan, California is entertaining some ideas about science education that are not so good.

E: Yeah, not so good, not so good news coming out of California. This is courtesy of one of our listeners named Aaron who let us know that recently in California, Governor Jerry Brown's 2012-2013 state budget proposal is on the table for lawmakers to review and included in his proposal is his recommendation to eliminate the requirement that high school students need to pass two years worth of science classes in order to graduate. The governor's proposed budget refers to this as an unnecessary mandate and those are his words, unnecessary mandate. He's looking to reduce it to a one year requirement and the governor's primary motivation is budgetary concerns, he says because, well we can't be wasting money on unnecessary mandates like requiring that high school students pass two years worth of science, right?

S: Yeah, unfortunately California is in a budget crisis. To put this into context for those who may not know, especially outside the US, California is just swimming in debt, they have rules in place that make it difficult to, the governor doesn't even have that much power in terms of trying to reign in spending, there's a lot of mandatory spending because of just the way the state is run. So they're desperate to find ways of cutting spending. Which doesn't justify what he's doing, but I just put it into context. I think this is exactly where you don't cut spending and that is investment in infrastructure and...

J: Well it's the same thing as the last news item, Steve. It's a short-term game. It's bullshit.

S: Yeah. Well investing in science education is investing in a very critical infrastructure of our country. That's not the kind of cutbacks that you make when you need short-term budgetary fixes. There should also be four years education in science. Even two is a joke.

J: Yeah, we're having economic problems, let's add more science to our curriculum so in the future the state isn't in this condition any more.

R: Yeah and it is funny that this is the second news item in a row about economic problems directly impacting science.

E: The governor said on his, you know because he ran for governor in 2010, his campaign website he touted the following, right on his website: promoting more math and science through the state board of education and the board of trustees of California's State university system, we increased the graduation requirements to include three years of math and two years of science to create local and state initiatives to increase school focus on science, history and humanities without reducing needed attention to math and English. And there was a special emphasis on teaching science, technology, engineering and math, STEM, as part of the broader curriculum, we need to strengthen STEM teaching and increase the number of STEM graduates. So this is a bit hypocritical and he runs on that, and then winds up doing something totally different. The other bad piece of news coming out of California recently: The report has found that only 22% of California's 8th graders have passed a national science standards test and this ranks California as the fourth worst state in the nation for this test, behind Mississippi, Alabama and the District of Columbia. This is the 2012 national assessment of educational progress, the nation's report card, and it shows that too few students have the skills that could lead to careers in the fields regarding science. Not good.

J: I'm getting so sick of hearing this. I really, it blows my mind that they don't get the importance of this stuff, like what do we have to do to prove to them how drastically important it is to educate our populace?

S: Yeah, I don't know.

J: What the hell do we have to do?

S: This is a perennial problem in American politics in that everyone running for office, whether governor or president, they push education as a big issue, I'm pro education. But then they don't put their money where their mouth is, if you're pro education this is when you find out, when there's a budget crunch, where are you going to put your priority? Clearly not in education. Especially science education which everyone says, oh STEM research, we have to support STEM research, it's an investment in the future, it's an investment in infrastructure and our country. Great! Then do it! Don't just talk about it. It really isn't being done to the degree that it should and I honestly do think that there should be four years or science in high school, I think even two years is not enough.

B: My god yes.

E: Yeah. I mean some schools will have the option of making it part of their curriculum, it just won't be necessarily part of, it's not the state standard.

S: Yeah, it means that poor schools won't get it, that's what that means, yeah.

E: Exactly, that's the point, is that the ones who have the hardest time with the funding are going to suffer the worst, and those are the kids who can least afford to skimp on this level of education. And look, take these two stories together. You've got eighth graders who are failing at the, I mean 78% of them fail the national science standard test, coming out of eighth grade and then going into high school in which they're reducing the mandatory amount of classes so it's coupled, right? I mean it goes from bad to even worse when you just thought it couldn't get worse. But look, hey we could always go somewhere else for our science education.

S: Like South Korea, yeah. (laughs)

E: Like you know, South Korea, right? Yeah!

J: Oh, D'oh!

Creationism in South Korean Schools (41:17)[edit]

NCSE: Creationist success in South Korea?

E: Wait, the other piece of not-so-good news. Oh, if it was bad enough that creationists have their filthy mitts in our education system here at home, they're reaching into places around the world from which we don't normally regard as ripe targets for destroying science education, but South Korea is one of those places unfortunately, and I'm quoting from the National Centre for Science Education who reports: a creationist campaign to remove references to evolution from high school biology text books in South Korea succeeded in May of 2012, according to a report in Nature which came out just the other day.[6] The Ministry of Eduction, Science and Technology revealed that many of the publishers would produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopetryx.

S: Archaeopteryx.

E: Archaeopteryx.

S: So what happened was, the Committee to Revise Evolution in Textbooks, which is a creationist organisation, petitioned the ministry to remove essentially as much evolution as they could from textbooks. The ministry then sent the proposal to the textbook publishers without any kind of review by biologists or scientists or the scientific community, and of course, the textbook companies are like "oh, we don't want to publish anything controversial", so they just agreed to it and they just pulled out any mention of evolution and so now after the decision was made, it's being made public and the scientists are like, "uh hello, no one even asked us about this, about the science in our textbooks", so it was terrible. The ministry, this is a total failure on their part, I mean they should have just told the creationists to go screw themselves when they petitioned them in the first place, and if they have a process that they have to go through when they receive such petitions, then go through the process, but involve the scientific community instead of just bypassing them and going straight to the textbook publishers.

R: Well this is the problem and this is what creationists and other evangelical Christians thrive on is this, you know, they spread. I think that often people in other countries look at the US and shake their heads and wonder what went wrong and they're not prepared to deal with the influx of evangelicals pushing their agenda in governments and in schools.

S: Yeah.

R: And so they're not, they're not equipped to deal with it unfortunately. I try to stress this point whenever I'm speaking, as I just did in Germany for instance, where I talked about the anti-science laws the religious right is pushing in the US and I made sure to point out that it's not just happening in the US and I showed them examples of, you know, here's where our evangelicals have come and influenced for instance the European Union to influence their laws, they've done it in the UK in parliament, and now they're doing it in South Korea and I'm sorry to say it's not a surprise, they saw an unguarded nation of children.

S: Yep.

R: And they moved in for the kill.

J: And their mouths are salivating and they, oh my god.

R: Yeah.

S: Yeah.

R: They're predatory, you know?

S: Yeah, the South Korean scientific community was taken unawares, and they don't have an infrastructure to deal with this and now they got caught with their pants down essentially. Now they're going to have to develop that infrastructure, they're going to have to get involved in defending and promoting good science education so that this kind of thing doesn't happen. They basically need a South Korean version of the National Centre for Science Education, like Eugenie Scott runs here in the US.

E: And they have to keep up with it too. They can't just do it once, knock it down once, it's forever.

S: Yeah. Oh it's vigilance, it takes endless vigilance. You know, unfortunately the creationists have a single agenda, they can put all of their time and energy to it, for some reason they're always well funded and they can tirelessly lobby the government and make mischief. Meanwhile, scientists and skeptics, we have to defend science and reason on a hundred different fronts and we have no funding, or very little, only whatever our community donates to us, so it's tough. It's tough to be vigilant about this.

R: Can I just request you not use "make mischief" because it makes them sound like lovable skamps.

J: Yeah, I know they're not running around giving people hot foots.


J: They are corrupting and destroying education across the frikking globe, how pathetic does that sound, like I'm making it up. Across the globe! No, they're actually doing it across the glob.


E: Spanning the globe!

S: I like how they said, they tried to justify pulling mention of Archaeopteryx out of the textbooks with, well there's no evidence that Archaeopteryx was actually an ancestor to modern birds, look at all the feathered dinosaurs that are being discovered. So what? So you're using the discovery of the feathered dinosaurs, which is a massive confirmation of the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, as a reason for removing this evidence? Yeah, Archaeopteryx was not on the main line to modern birds. So what? It's an offshoot during a time of adaptive radiation of many different types of feathered dinosaurs. They definitely were somewhere in there, if not on the direct line, and who cares? This is completely irrelevant, it just shows their misunderstanding of the evidence for evolution and I think they just don't care. It's a convenient argument for them to make, they don't care if it's really accurate or valid.

R: Yeah, they'll say anything

B: Total cherry picking.

R: Do we have any happy news stories?

S: We had the transit of Venus, that was a happy one. And we're going to-

B: Happy, happy, joy, joy.

S: -reverse the tone of our recent items with a quickie with Bob.

E: Oooh

R: Ah, good one.

Quickie with Bob: Vapor Storage (47:18)[edit]

Discovery news: Movie Frames Saved to Atomic Vapor

B: Yes! Thank you, Steve; this is your Quickie with Bob. I call this Quickie with Bob "Vapor Movies". Scientists-

J: (laughing)

E: (Southern accent) I think I've got the vapors.

B: Scientists have devised a way to store images in a vapor of atoms. In fact, this is the first time that images have been stored at the same time and reliably played back in a non-solid medium. These scientists work for the Joint Quantum Institute- wouldn't it be cool to work for a place called the Joint Quantum Institute?

S: Although, there's a 50% chance that it's total quackery. But this one's legitimate.

B: Why? Why?

S: If you have the word quantum in your name, chances are 50-50 that you're either legitimate scientific organization or total quackery outfit.

R: Never know until you open the door.

E: Or you're in the Deepak Chopra realm.

B: Plus they got "joint" in there too, so who knows what's going on. But, this institute is a research partnership between the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, so high level of confidence there. The quantum process that allows images to be stored like this is called "gradient echo memory". Now, it's accomplished by finely tuning electric and magnetic fields along the 20cm length of a special cell containing a vapor of rubidium atoms. Talk about cloud storage. Using this technique, they stored two movie frames: one of the letter N and one of the letter T. Now, I didn't say it was a long movie, but it consisted of two frames, so technically, you could call this a movie. Unfortunately, you probably won't be watching a movie with this technology in the near future, but it appears very well suited, though, for storing and processing quantum information and this is because this technology would be ideally suited to handle the very subtle issues that quantum computing requires, like coherence and environmental isolation. So for more fascinating details about gradient echo memory, look for the May issue of Optics Express or do a Google News search for "atomic vapor movie" you can read a lot more details about it. This has been your Quickie with Bob; I hope it was good for you too.

E: So we have to have an Academy Award category for Best Quantum Movie now.

B: Yeah.

E: "The nominees are: the letter N, the letter T..."


B: I'll wait until they get 24 frames, so we have a full second.

Magnetic Skeptical Phrases (49:44)[edit]

S: So Rebecca, I think it's time to announce the winner of our Magnetic Words for Skeptics.

R: I think it is. Sorry we had to postpone it a little bit because of travel and such. You guys can tell me which is your favorite. And of course, the winner will receive a free SGU T-shirt and I'm happy to say that everyone whose poems I am about to read will receive a free download of our brand-new iPad app, which is Word Magnets for Skeptics, sponsored by Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, which you can find by going on iTunes and searching and it costs like, just a couple of bucks and it has all of the same words as the word magnets, but you can play on your iPad. OK, so here are the poems. Number one:

I wish, of all my billion creations, the technology to evolve angry nano robot monkeys was the worst threat.

B: I like that one.

R: That came from Joe Albetz. Next up:

Alien, Bigfoot, and creation hoax.

Why the Skeptics' Guide will think and coax.
To homeopathy do not believe,
Debunked by evidence proof from Steve.
Rebecca kicks at Science or Fiction
Smart like Evan, go vaccination.
Of bird vs. monkey we like Perry.
Jay always doubts fraud technology.
With nano Bob they all face a billion

Teaching medicine, physics, and evolution.

R: That's from Jamie Hero. Or that might be Jaime[hi-me], sorry if I- might be Jaime or Jamie[jay-me], I'm not sure.

E: I like that one.

B: That was good.

R: Yeah, that included a bit of rhyming, which I think is kind of impressive. Next up:

They who ask about evidence and proof teach against every fiction.

R: That's from Dustin Manning. Couple more:

Homeopath actually debunks evolution with anecdote only, said psychic.
Skeptics doubt this, ghost of Darwin angry.


E: Darwin ghost getting angry!

R: That's from Mark Van. Next up:

Vaccinate Bigfoot against alien nano particle robot abduction.

R: Simple and sweet, from Brian Brophy

E: Sums up the show.

Darwin monkey eats his creation.

E: (chuckles)

R: Joe Jermonie. And last up:

There was a podcasting ghost,

Hoaxed the skeptic almost.
But she did have doubt,
Said proof it's about,

And offered the haunted some toast.

R: That's from Scotty Harrison.

E: Scotty!

R: So that's all of them. So, you guys, weigh in. I know which one is my favorite, but I'd like to hear it from you guys.

S: I mean, the angry nano robot monkeys is- you know, deserves an honorable mention. But, I mean, the limerick has gotta get the nod.

B: Yeah, I feel the same way. Exactly. "Nano robot monkeys"; what's not to love about that, but the limerick was just like, all right, that just flows so nicely.

E: It was perfectly paced. Very creative. That definitely, I think, will wind up being the winner here, although Jaime's is really good, too; I like that one as well. I'm splitting my vote between those two.

R: Mmm, a split vote. Jay, did you weigh in?

J: Yeah, I don't disagree that the one that the guy wrote is hard. He definitely put time into it but I have to pick the one that goes, "Vaccinate Bigfoot against alien nano particle robot abduction". Short, sweet, to the point, says it all.

R: That's a fine choice, that was Joe Jermonie's- no, I'm sorry-

E: It's a slogan you can live by.

R: That was Brian Brophy's. My favorite, like most of you, was Scotty Harrison's, the limerick, because he- he actually like, built words out of other letters and stuff just to get what he wanted and you know, it scanned well. A lot of people can't write a limerick that scans just when they have a limitless supply of words. So, yeah, it scanned, it rhymed. Scotty Harrison.

E: Scotty-doo!

R: Congratulations, Scotty, we're going to send you a free T-shirt. I will send you an email and get your address and send it right off to you. Thanks to everyone who entered. Like I mentioned, everybody will get a free copy of our new iPad app, Word Magnets for Skeptics, and the rest of you can go onto the Apple Store and you can buy it.

Who's That Noisy? (54:37)[edit]

S: Well, Evan, I had to cover Who's That Noisy last week all by myself; it was lonely without you.

E: Ohhh. Well, I heard you did a very, very ... how do you say

S: Competent and adequate.

E: Competent and adequate job. (laughs) Thank you Steve for doing that. I was away, as you know, but now that I'm back, I'm gonna go ahead and play for you last week's Who's That Noisy, as a reminder. And here we go:

(faint thumping sound)

R: L. Ron Hubbard.

S: (Scottish accent) That's easy!

B: My first thought was a beating heart, but there was no- it was too regular.

S: What do you mean, "it was too regular"?

B: It didn't have the characteristic thump-thump of a heart; it was just like a- it was like half of a heartbeat. I don't know; it just- it reminded me of flowing liquid.

S: It reminded you of a beating heart but there was something wrong about it.

B: Yes. Oh, yeah, right, that's another way to look at it.

E: Correct. That was the point, and a lot of people did guess that it was a, you know, the sound of a beating heart in some capacity. But you know, you had- what we were really looking for is, what exactly is going on here? What condition is this heart in, right?

B: Asystole?

S: No...

E: What is it called? That's known as a pansystolic heart murmur.

S: And, any medical student should be able to identify that.

E: And, apparently a medical student did identify exactly that it was a holosystolic murmur, also known as a pansystolic. Are the two terms interchangeable, Steve?

S: Yeah.

E: Uh.. cyclosarin, C-Y-C-L-O-S-A-R-I-N, his first post on our message boards, and he said "sounds like oscillation [sic] of a heartbeat with a systolic murmur, classically a 'pansystolic' murmur." And he says, "which would be due to mitral valve regurgitation or a ventricular septal defect"[7]. Yeah, so this guy's read a heart book or something like that. In any case, he was the first one to correctly guess exactly what that Noisy was. Well done; thank you for playing, cyclosarin.

S: Good job.

R: Good job. That's impressive.

E: On to the new one. Rebecca, I had you in mind when I came up with this week's Noisy. So, little hint for you there. Here we go!

And-and what it is, as probably your readers know, the sun is made of plasma; it's a- it's a fourth state of matter, so.

E: All right, that's it.

R: That's it?

E: That's all you need! Our email address is and our forums is Go ahead, post your guess, give it your best shot, and good luck to all of you.

Questions and Emails (57:21)[edit]

Peer Review[edit]

S: Thanks, Evan. All right, we're going to do one email this week. This one comes from Marv Zelkowitz from Columbia, Maryland, and Marv writes:

Steve, I know that you know what peer review is, but I think you sometimes mislead your audience when you mention that some new idea has not yet gone through "peer review" as a way to validate the claims of the idea. Peer review is just the initial step in the validation process. It is a series of experts who review a paper to make sure that there is no blatant error or mistake in what has been written. Once a paper has gone through peer review and then is published, the real validation then begins as other scientists try to duplicate the results. Only after repeated cases of duplicating the results or of failed attempts to invalidate it, does the claim start to have validity. Peer review does not help against collecting faulty data or downright fraud. And it is sometimes possible that the claim is not true even though it seems to have been validated. This last case is what pseudoscientists count on - that their claim is the one out of thousands that will overturn established scientific principles, something that rarely happens. A discussion of this might make an interesting segment on the SGU.

S: Obviously I agree or else I wouldn't be reading your email. I agree with everything Marv says, although I don't think that we've created that false impression on the show 'cause we have talked about this before.[link needed] We do mention peer review because peer review is what I would call a necessary but insufficient step in gaining scientific legitimacy. If you don't even get past the pre-publication peer review process, then there's probably something seriously wrong with your study or your paper. But once you are peer reviewed, that's no guarantee that the results of the study are good; that the study is not the result of researcher bias, or cherry picking, or even fraud, and it has to go through post-publication review, which includes the scientific community picking it apart. Just last week, we discussed the dark matter study where- that was published showing that there wasn't any local dark matter and then, after it was published, other scientists re-analyzed the data and said, "nope, you made this error and in fact, there is local dark matter." We do that all the week- in fact, I frequently will say when discussing - like on Science or Fiction - discussing papers, I will frequently throw in the caveat - it's almost a reflex now - that "if this pans out" or "if this holds up" once it goes through the meat grinder of scientific review, you know what I mean? So, I think we're pretty good, actually, at not giving the impression that, just because something is peer reviewed, that the results are valid, correct and legitimate.

R: And it was several years ago now, so- and it was rather brief, so maybe this listener missed it, but I do remember mentioning a few years ago that I went to see a talk by Fiona Godlee, who's editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, in which she spent her entire talk lambasting peer review, and talking about how insufficient it is for, for instance, catching fraud and how she is in favor of an overhaul of peer review as a system for checking scientific accuracy.[link needed] So you know, this is a topic we've talked about before but never really, maybe not necessarily in depth and not in a while.

S: Yeah, I think we have to- it's one of those things we have to revisit now and then 'cause it is, I agree, it is very core to what we talk about. So many times we talk about different studies and it's good for people to know what it means to be peer reviewed and the pre-publication process vs. what happens to a study after it gets published. All right, well, let's move on with Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:01:04)[edit]


S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and then I challenge my expert skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Everyone ready for this week?

R: Aww yeah.

S: All right, here we go. Item number one: 'Scientists estimate that the number of undiscovered drugs is 1060, or a million billion billion billion billion billion billion'. Item number two: 'An international team of scientists have published a paper in Nature finding that the world is rapidly approaching a tipping point of global ecological collapse'. And item number three: 'Biologists report on a recently discovered parasitic plant that transfers genes to its animal host in order to make it more hospitable'. Bob, I don't believe you've gone first in a while.

B: Number of undiscovered drugs, 1060. Well, that's a huge goddamn number. Is that a sextilion?

E: Not a googol.

S: Nope. It's a novemdecillion[8].

B: Oh

E: Oh. Common term in everyday use.

R: Wow, a what?

B: One of the boring ones.

E: Feptober

B: 1060, yeah, that's gargantuan, but that depends- it depends how you define a "drug", obviously, and there's so many combinations and permutations of all the various elements and compounds and molecule- I mean, it just- so yeah, I'm kind of like of two minds. It seems like a huge number, but I just think you can combine things in so many different ways that, yeah, maybe you can; it doesn't mean that they're good drugs, but... crap. Let's see, an international team of scientists- "the world is rapidly approaching a tipping point of global ecological collapse." Yeah, I could see, I hope they're wrong, but considering all the changes going on throughout the world and all the various ecological niches, yeah sure, I could see them coming to that conclusion; it's not too out there as I see it. Let's see, the third one: "a parasitic plant that transfers genes to its animal host in order to make it more hospitable." Ugh, wow, that's cool; wackier things have happened. So for me, it's between one and three.

R: I hope that's the headline. "Wackier things have happened!"


E: That's a section of the news.

B: I'm going to say... 1060 is just too damn high; I'll go with that one. Fiction!

S: OK. Evan?

B: Bastard

E: Well, 1060. That's a big number. It's not a googol, but it's a big number.

S: It's getting there.

E: I'll move on to the second one. "The world is rapidly approaching a tipping point of global ecological collapse." It's a little broad, it's a little alarmist, perhaps, I hope. But that doesn't mean they didn't publish the paper; it's not- it doesn't mean that the paper's right.

S: It was peer reviewed.


E: Oh wait, you're right, so it must be right! The biologists- OK, "a parasitic plant that transfers genes to its animal host in order to make it more hospitable." How does that transfer of genes happen? If I knew more about genetics this might make more sense to me. I'm leaning towards this one being the fiction. Something's missing there; I think that one's the fiction.

S: OK, Rebecca?

R: Yeah, for me it's between the drugs one and the parasitic plant. Yeah, obviously "the world is rapidly approaching a tipping point of global ecological"- obviously that's happening, so, yeah, no, that's fine. And I'm gonna- I'm just- the thing is, I can believe that there are- there's a huge number of undiscovered drugs, mostly for the reason Bob mentioned before he decided this one was the fiction. Which is, there are so many molecules and compounds that you can put together in so many different ways that sure, why not. I'm just going to once again trust you, Steve, that it's not actually a million billion billion billion billion as opposed to-

E: 1061 power!

R: -a million billion billion billion billion billion. So for that reason, I'm going to go with the parasitic plant one as well. I don't get how that gene transfer happens. I just feel like that one's the least likely so I'm going to go with that one.

E: Thanks, Rebecca.

S: All righty. Jay?

J: That first one about the potential billions and billions and billions of undiscovered drugs- it's really hard for me to conceptualize a limit on how many variations there would be for different types or different kinds of molecules and how they're constructed. I think they can get down into amazing detail on what a variation would be considered. And that's the hard part here is what is the actual variation that you're talking about; at what level would you actually say that one is a variant of the other? So, that coupled with the idea that they could make custom medication for people down, I think, to the DNA level I've read things about them working on that. So sure, this one sure absolutely seems like it's possible, even though that number is incredibly huge. Taking the second one- You know, this one has the sound of a totally alarmist, you know, it's a "the world is rapidly approaching a tipping point of global ecological collapse." It sounds incredibly scary and alarming and everything; however, they don't actually say, when they say "rapidly", what do they mean; do they mean this year, five years, ten years, a hundred years. Depends on what your scale is. And then that last one about the parasitic plant transferring genes to the animal host. That sounds exactly like something freaky in nature that is going on right now. I don't really know if a plant's genes can communicate and interact with a mammal's genes or what's really going on there, but I just think that's freaky enough for it to exist. So, as I review the three of these, I think I'm going to have to take the one about parasitic plant-

S: So, you guys all accept that an international team of scientists have published a paper in Nature, a very prestigious peer-reviewed journal, finding that the world is rapidly approaching a tipping point of global ecological collapse. And that one... is... science!

R: Obviously. Obviously.

S: So this is 21 scientists from different disciplines in different countries who analyzed changes to the planet's ecosystems that are happening. So we know from historical data that local environments like say, the North American environment, local on that scale, can reach this climate tipping point or ecological tipping point where there's a rapid collapse of the existing ecosystem and transition to a new balance, a new system which then can take up to about a thousand years or so to establish itself. Once the system gets beyond a certain tipping point, they say it can't go back; the previous ecosystem is gone, and they say that the Earth doesn't remember its prior state so there's really no way to get back to the way it was before. So it has to just go through to a new equilibrium, whatever that's going to be. And it's not necessarily a worse state than the previous one, although it is pretty disruptive in the transition, which lasts like a thousand years. But, it certainly would be very disruptive to our civilization, as we're kinda dependent on the current ecosystem.

J: A little.

R: Kind of.

E: Just for our food and our energy but other than that...

S: So it could be a problem. So they say that this could actually happen on a global scale, not just a local scale, because of the way energy is changing in the environment, because of the climate change, et cetera. The displacement of natural environments with agriculture and cities that we are actually pretty close to the point where we are going to be past the point of no return and the current ecosystem of the- global ecosystem will collapse. They said- the study concluded that it would be very likely to happen if we exceed the 50% mark in terms of wholesale transformation of the Earth's surface, so changing forests into wheat fields; you know, something like that or into cities, and right now we're at the 43% mark. So if we go from 43% - where we are now - past 50%, they predict that would be a point of no return for the planet's ecosystem. Let's go back to number one: Scientists estimate that the number of undiscovered drugs is 1060, or novemdecillion. Bob, you think this one is the fake; that number's just too high; the rest of you think this one is science, and this one is... science. Sorry, Bob.

B: Aah.

E: Wow! Wow.

R: The mighty have fallen.

E: Well, well (laughs)

S: What the scientists did was they-

R: You're going to remember this the rest of your life.

S: They explored so-called chemical space, they used physical and chemical properties-

B: Crap!

E: Delayed reaction, I love it.

S: -the laws of physics and chemistry in order to calculate the number of possible small molecules, molecules that are in the size range where they could be used as a drug- as a potential drug, and they came up with the number of 1060 possible different chemical- small molecules that therefore could function as a drug. Obviously, not all of them would be useful drugs; most, probably the vast majority of them won't be, but that's the potential number.

E: Which means...

S: Which means that "Biologists report on a recently discovered parasitic plant that transfers genes to its animal host in order to make it more hospitable" is ... the fiction. That one is fiction. Not as far-fetched as you made it seem, however. There is so-called horizontal genes transfer; do you guys remember, we did a recent news item in which a slug was eating algae and getting the genes for photosynthesis from the algae and it was actually working?[link needed] So, there's precedence for this. And this is based upon a real news item. I wasn't sure to make this one true or the fiction; I've been having that problem recently. This one- it is a parasitic plant and there is horizontal gene transfer between the host and the plant, but it's from the host to the plant, to the parasite, not the other way around, and it's one plant parasitizing another. So what they found was- there is a parasitic plant called the corpse flower, found in southeast Asia, and it attaches itself to host vines, mainly members of the grapevine family, and what researchers found is that the parasitic corpse flower had genes that were very similar to genes found in their host, more similar than could be accounted for by their evolutionary relationship; they're actually quite distantly related. Therefore, they concluded that the parasite, the parasitic corpse flower, had acquired those genes at some point in the past from the grapevine host, and that some of those genes may actually be functional. They're actually using the genes, they didn't just incorporate them into their DNA, which is very interesting. This is the first time that that has been established; transfer of- horizontal transfer of genes from host to parasite. There is a complicated relationship between host and parasite, including their genetic relationship. The study also discussed the fact that, in other ways, other than just the transfer of genes, the parasitic corpse flower is evolving to genetically be more similar to its hosts and they think that that is because it would make it would make it more successful as a parasite, better able to interface with the host. So the idea that I had- can you imagine if a parasite, rather than getting genes from the host, if it, let's say, inserted genes into the host so that the host would be better food for it; you know, it would produce chemicals that it needs to survive, almost like a virus, you know, inserting genes to make something that it needs.

B: Fascinating.

S: So, Bob, rare week where you're the sole loser.

J: Loser!

E: Wow, when you say it like that...

R: Way to rub it in there, Steve.

B: I do it once in a while to make everyone else feel good.

S: You're good that way.

E: Thanks, Bob.

R: Thanks, I appreciate that.

E: Good work, Bob.

B: You're welcome.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:36)[edit]

S: Jay, you have a quote for me?

J: I was looking for Ray Bradbury quotes, and Evan sent in a good one, and I actually am going to go with one that was sent in by the guy that sent in last week's quote, and that guy's name is Patrick McCoomb. Hope I'm pronouncing your name right even after you sent in the way to say it correctly; I can't remember. So, here's the quote:

The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance - the idea that anything is possible.

J: Ray Bradbury!

S: Doesn't that- "the idea that anything is possible" notion contradict his distinction between fantasy novels and science fiction?

R: Indeed it does.

B: Ha ha.

E: Mmhmm.

Announcements (1:15:16)[edit]

J: So, Joshie and I have been working further on the skeptics' poker tournament that's going to be at TAM this year. This is the first annual skeptics' poker tournament and we really hope that everyone can join us. If you're interested, all you have to do is send us your name or all the names of the people that you're going to pre-register to skepticspoker at gmail dot com. So please include the full name and the email address of each person that's registering. The game is Texas hold 'em; it has a $125 buy-in. Joshie is giving free lessons throughout the event; we're going to have some time slots that we're going to pick. The event starts at 11 PM on Saturday night, and I really hope that you join us.

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

R: Thank you, Steve.

J: Surely!

E: Good to be here.

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

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

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Ray Bradbury was a descendent of Mary Bradbury, who was found to be a witch during the Salem Witch Trial years
  • Ray Bradbury wrote Farenheit 451 in 9 days in the basement of the UCLA library on a typewriter rented for 10c/hr
  • The number 360 has 24 divisors
  • The rotation of the atmosphere around the Earth takes 243 days. On Venus, this takes only four Earth days, and is called super-rotation
  • Scientists have devised a way to store images in a vapor of atoms, the first time that images have been stored and reliably played back in a non-solid medium (Discovery article)
  • Scientists estimate that the number of undiscovered drugs is 1060, or a million billion billion billion billion billion billion (ScienceDaily article)
  • The parasitic corpse flower appears to acquire genes from their grapevine host, some of which may be functional (BioMed abstract)


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