SGU Episode 475

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SGU Episode 475
August 16th 2014

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 474                      SGU 476

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


P: Phil Plait

RR: Rene Ritchie

Quote of the Week

There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.

George Washington

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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 Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, August 13th, 2014, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella ...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Jay Novella ...

J: Hey guys,

S: Evan Bernstein ...

E: Good evening folks!

S: And we have a guest rogue this week, Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. Phil, welcome back to the Skeptic's Guide.

P: Thanks for having me on! I've never been on this show before, and this is quite exciting.

(Bob laughs)

S: Yeah, it's quite the novel experience, isn't it.

E: Yeah, wow!

B: Phil, Phil!

E: Phil?

B: Good to have ya back, man! Yay!

S: (Chuckles) Well, Rebecca is having computer problems. She'll join us later if she ever manages to troubleshoot, but she may be out this evening.

P: It's me; I know it's me. How many times have I done this show, and how many times have I actually done this when Rebecca's been on? It's been twice, it seems like.

E: Are you saying maybe your magnetic field is interfering with her magnetic field, and causing some sort of issue there?

S: Well, it was a good week then, because basically, you'll be the faux Rebecca for this week.

(Phil laughs. Rogues speak over each other.)

E: Sure, sure!

J: Don't speak in a high voice.

E: And put on your larger-rimmed glasses.

P: I don't know if I have a pair of green, plastic glasses, or whatever she's wearing these days.

Phil Plait Update (1:20)[edit]

S: Phil, tell us what you've been up to.

P: Oh, just hanging out, you know. Actually, honestly, it's been pretty busy this summer. I've been writing a lot, traveling a lot, hitting some cons, giving talks, working on some secret projects I can't talk about just yet, but hopefully I'll have some news about very soon.

S: Um hmm.

P: And it's just been crazy busy.

S: So, if there are any listeners who don't know who Phil Plait is, he is the Bad Astronomer. You could read him at, you're on Slate, right? If you just look at Bad Astronomy. You'll be the first hit.

P: And I'll say, coming up soon, I'm gonna be at the bad ad hoc hypothesis fest, BAHFest with Zach Weiner in San Francisco, where people get to come up with crazy, evolutionary theories, and present them to an audience, and it's all gonna be very funny. So if you look up B-A-H-fest, that's gonna be great. I can't wait for that.

J: Oh, cool!

B: That sounds cool.

This Day in Skepticism (2:15)[edit]

  • August 16, 1634: Urbain Grandier is burned at the stake for witchcraft.

S: So, I'm gonna cover This Day in Skepticism, since Rebecca is not here. You guys ever heard of Urbain Grandier?

J: No.

S: Does anybody know how to pronounce Urbain Grandier?

J: Don't ask me.

(Rogues laugh)

S: 'Cause, is it Grandi-ay, do you think? G-R-A-N-D-I-E-R?

P: Gran-dee-ehr.

B: Could be. Could be.

S: Gran-dee-ay? Maybe.

P: Gran-dee-ay. You kind of swallow the "R" a wee bit.

E: Grandiugh.

S: Yeah, so he – he died on August 18th ...

E: Oh.

B: Oh, it's a person!

S: 1634. Yeah, it's a person. He was burned alive at the stake for being ...

P: A newt!

S: A witch!

B: A skeptic.

E: A witch! (Inaudible) out of ...

B: A warlock!

J: Yeah, a man witch is warlock, right?

S: It's true! Benny Hill reference. So,

(More laughter)

P: Wow! That's reaching way back!

S: That's going back. It's an interesting story. He was a priest, but didn't buy the whole celibacy thing. He actually wrote a book trying to convince the Catholic church that ...

B: I could see that.

S: yeah, Catholic priests don't really have to be ... the doctrine of clerical celibacy was passé, and should be gotten rid of. Meanwhile, he just ignored it, and was known as a philanderer. And it's kind of a confused story about, between him, and a nunnery, and the Mother Superior at the nunnery was interested in him ...

B: Wow!

S: but he rebuked her. So then she accused him of cavorting with the devil. And some of the other nuns agreed with that. So then he was put on trial. He was found innocent. But then his enemy, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of France, he campaigned against Grandier.

He essentially reopened the trial, charged him again, and then, at that point, the nuns essentially recanted their earlier testimony. They would not repeat their accusations. Didn't matter. They essentially produced a contract, a written contract between Grandier and Satan.

(Evan laughs hard)

P: Whoa!

S: The contract, I gotta read the whole thing because it's right out of the show Supernatural. It's wonderful. Here is the translated version of the contract.

"We, the influential Lucifer, the young Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi,

and Astaroth, together with others, have today accepted the covenant pact of Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And him do we promise the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers. He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him. He offers us once in the year a seal of blood, under the feet he will trample the holy things of the church and he will ask us many questions; with this pact he will live twenty years happy on the earth of men, and will later join us to sin against God. Bound in hell, in the council of demons. Lucifer Beelzebub Satan Astaroth Leviathan Elimi The seals placed the Devil, the master, and the demons, princes of the lord.

Baalberith, writer.

(Evan and Steve laugh)

B: What the hell?

S: And they presented this as a genuine document. And he was convicted. Probably, they got him to confess under torture.

E: Yeah.

S: Or they just made it up. You know, you can't really tell the difference. But he did profess his innocence right until they burned him alive at the stake. It really is, do any of you guys watch Supernatural, the show Supernatural?

B: No.

E: I – I've steered clear of...

B: It's pretty good.

S: It's, you know, it's good mind candy. It's good, it's well written. It's fun. But this is like, they use this as a source, this is like, right out of one of the episodes.

(Evan and Steve laugh)

E: That's classic.

S: That's what you could do to your enemies back then. 1634, you could just decide, "Well, I don't like that guy. I'm gonna get him burned at the stake for making a pact with the devil."

B: Oh my god. And the nuns recanted! They didn't even join in! And still ...

S: It didn't matter.

B: Yeah.

S: Make it up.

P: Way too late for that, right?

J: So, Steve, you sure that he didn't make a pact with the devil though?

P: Yeah, you can't prove that he didn't not make a pact with the devil.

E: I know! We have to prove that Lucifer and Bezelbub and Satan didn't really sign that document.

S: No, Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi, I think that's all one person.

B: Yeah.

S: And then there's As ... yeah. That's the way ... because it's signed ...

E: Oh, it kind of covers all those.

S: It's signed Lucifer Beelzebub Satan, that's one signature. And then below that, Asteroth Leviathon Elimi. It's confusing.

P: Did he sign with a hoof print or anything like that?

S: Or those may all be different people. They often signed with their symbol, not a name. It's just a symbol.

P: Well, he is legion, for he is many.

S: He is legion. That is true.

News Items[edit]

Carrington Event Redux (7:12)[edit]

S: Alright, well, hey, Phil, while we got you here, let's talk about a couple of astronomy items. I understand that NASA said something like, "Hey, you know what guys? By the way, two years ago civilization was almost destroyed. Carry on.

E: (Laughs) Everything's fine now.

S: Everything's fine. Nothing to see here.

P: That's not really such a horrible way of summarizing this story.

S: I know!

E: Oh my gosh.

P: You know, and I'm laughing about it, but two years ago, I remember when this happened, and it was like, "Oh, wow! The sun really blew off a big ol' blob of stuff there," and I didn't really think anything of it. And now we're learning, and I guess it was known then, but it's starting to come out now, that in fact, the solar storm was a huge event.

So, the sun is not just sitting there glowing hot. It has a very strong and complex magnetic field, and there's a huge amount of energy that is stored in that magnetic field. This energy can be released. There are a couple of ways it can do this.

It can do it on the surface, where the magnetic field lines get very tangled up, and just basically, you get a tremendous and very short burst of energy. And by tremendous, I mean millions of times the size of a nuclear weapon. It's a huge thing. And that's what we call a solar flare.

That can trigger a much larger event called a coronal mass ejection, which is also a magnetic event; but basically this will eject something like a billion tonnes of subatomic particles from the sun.

S: Now, Phil, from my reading, the relationship between really big solar flares and coronal mass ejections is still controversial, or uncertain?

P: Let me say that it is clear that some flares happen, and then coronal mass ejections happen right after them. So, CME's, as well call them, can be triggered by flares, or they are both two aspects of the same event. But we also get flares without coronal mass ejections, and we get coronal mass ejections without flares.

So, they are connected in some physical way, but it's not always clear what's causing which, and what's exactly happening. But, in fact, the biggest event like this that was ever seen was in 1859. It was the so-called Carrington event. It was actually seen by a couple of astronomers who were observing the sun in visible light.

And for a flare to be seen in visible light against the background of the sun is huge. That was a big event. And that triggered a huge coronal mass ejection, and this basically, a blast of these subatomic particles went screaming across the solar system and hit the Earth.

And there is an associated magnetic field sort of trapped in this plasma that moves outward with it. That affects the Earth's magnetic field. A whole series of things has to happen here. But basically, it's kind of like a sympathetic vibration, in a sense. The magnetic field of this plasma cloud interacts with our magnetic field, and can generate a huge amount of electric current in the Earth itself, under the ground. This is called a Geomagnetically induced current.

That can cause a lot of damage! Back then, in 1859, it caused telegraphs to short out. There were places where the telegraph batteries were basically turned off, but there was so much electricity flowing through the lines with the batteries turned off because of this event; basically, it was creating electric current in the Earth; that telegraphs could work, even though they were, in a sense, switched off.

It's bizarre! And we've been saying for years, if this were to happen now, this would be a catastrophe! We've seen smaller events cause blackouts, like in Quebec in 1989. That's the canonical example people use. Something like this could destroy satellites, it could cause widespread blackouts. We haven't had an event that big since 1859. And in fact, that's when these things were first discovered. That event was so huge, that even at the time, they could see it.

Well, it turns out in 2012, the sun blew off another one of these huge events, and it missed the Earth by about two weeks if you want to think of it that way. If this had happened, I think, two weeks earlier, the Earth would have been in a position in its orbit where this would have actually hit us. As it was, it was directed away from us, and hit a satellite that's orbiting the sun, and that footage is terrifying. It looks like it was hit by a shotgun.

B: Yeah.

E: Wow.

P: And that's how we were able to measure the strength of this thing, and some scientists have said, "Yeah! This thing was at least the equal of the 1859 event. And if it had happened, we would have lost satellites, we would have lost power. The internet would be down." And be honest, there's one scientist who said, "Today, two years later, we'd still be picking up the pieces."

J: Phil, if it hit, would it hit half the Earth, wherever the energy was coming from? Would it be that way? Or would it be more regional, like in a specific country size.

B: It would propagate around most of the Earth, I think, because of the Earth's magnetic – is it the magnetic field? Or the Van Allen Belts?

P: Yeah, basically, it's, there's a lot of regional damage. For example, in North America, up in the northern states, and in Canada, the geography and literally the geology underground makes it a little bit easier for this magnetic-induced current to exist. Which is why, for example, Quebec lost power, whereas other places didn't.

So, you get specific damage because of the way the Earth is constructed. And it depends on which way the Earth is tilted. So, if it happens in the summer, it might ... and I should say the way the magnetic field of the plasma connects with the Earth. It has its own north and south magnetic field poles just like we do, and it might connect better with the Earth in the north pole than the south pole, and all this stuff.

It could be global. Certainly, these fast moving subatomic particles slam into satellites and basically create ... they generate huge electromagnetic pulses. And that will short out the satellite. And that can happen anywhere in space. It doesn't matter if it's in the north or south pole. As long as it's not behind the Earth, shadowed by the physical bulk of the Earth itself, the satellites can get overwhelmed by this.

Military satellites are hardened against this sort of thing, but it's hard to tell if we would lose some military satellites as well.

J: You think we could simulate it in a small scale to test devices?

P: Well, we have! Look up Starfish Prime on the web. This was a nuclear test back in the ... '60's, I believe it was, without looking it up. And it was a nuclear bomb that went up over the Pacific. And I want to say they blew it up about 900 kilometers off the surface of the Earth, but it actually caused power outages in Hawaii. Blew out stop lights, traffic lights, and street lights, because of the electromagnetic pulse from this thing. It was really tremendous!

B: Phil, I think it reached 800 miles in Hawaii. In your blog, I think you mentioned that.

P: Oh, okay. I mean ...

B: Quite a distance.

P: Of course, it's going off the surface of the Earth, and the Earth is curved. The higher up you go, the farther away the direct line of sight is. So, Hawaii could have been on the horizon. It could have been a thousand or more miles away. Even if the bomb were only a few hundred miles up. So, the reach of this thing was quite huge, and that was caused by the huge pulse of subatomic particles and ... gamma rays actually, from the bomb.

So, in a sense, that sort of EMP - the electromagnetic pulse – is similar to a coronal mass ejection. I don't know how they would compare. I mean, the pulse from a bomb is very localized; something from a CME would envelop the entire geomagnetic region of the Earth. But either way, you don't want to be screwing around with forces like this.

S: Now, Phil, I was trying to figure out, to find some definitive sources, exactly what would be vulnerable. Everyone seems to agree that satellites would be massively vulnerable unless they were really hardened against this type of event; that the power grid, because it's so huge, would be extremely vulnerable, especially the transformers, which could easily be shorted out. But then, as you get progressively smaller and smaller, I found less and less agreement, and just more opinions, and I couldn't find any really hard data.

So, for example, would the electronics in an airplane be taken out; or in a car even, be taken out by this; or would consumer electronics plugged in, of course they could always get a surge off of the power line, but unplugged, would this melt my hard drive?

P: Well, I will say that I am sure that there are people who know this, and could answer your question. These people may not be allowed to answer your question. I can expect that after Starburst Prime, which is when this effect was, I believe it was first seen, first discovered, there were tests specifically for this. And you can generate electromagnetic pulses on a small scale in various ways, not quite like they do in the movies, but it can be done.

And I imagine they test this on hardware. The question is, will it happen? I don't know. The direct effects of these things, the subatomic particles, they tend not to get very far past our magnetic field, or not really that far past our atmosphere. You need tremendously energetic subatomic particles to slam into our atmosphere, and then basically create subatomic shrapnel, I like to think about it, secondary particles that come screaming down in a shower. And those can affect things on the ground directly.

But I'm not even sure you can generate that sort of thing with a nuclear weapon. I don't know, to be honest. But either way, that's a good question. And like I said, I'm sure there are government people who know, but aren't talking.

S: Yeah, maybe that's why I couldn't find a definitive answer. A lot of opinions, but they're all over the place. Somebody's saying, "Oh, our electronic equipment is a million times more sensitive to this sort of thing than it was 40 years ago. But other people seem to think that small devices really wouldn't be at risk. But I couldn't find any calculations, not even like, a back-of-the-envelope calculations to really inform it. It was all just naked opinions.

P: Yeah, I'm not sure how you would do that. I mean, the Earth's atmosphere protects us from most of this. These particles really have a hard time getting through. So you probably wouldn't be directly affected. There wouldn't be anybody who would be dying of radiation poisoning except maybe astronauts, who are out in space, unfortunately.

Down here on the ground, that wouldn't happen. However, secondary effects, power outages, hospitals being out of power, lack of air conditioning if this happened in the summer, lack of heating if it happened in the winter, this could be a real problem.

S: Yeah

P: Now, the power grid, you can think of the power lines as being like pipes, with water flowing through them, except in this case, it's wires with electricity. When a lot of these things were built, they were built 50 years ago or more, when the capacity, the load was a lot lower. We didn't have that many houses and buildings and such. Now though, we're running this grid almost at capacity. And if you induce current in these lines, if you add extra lines into them, it's like trying to force more water through a pipe than it can handle. The pipe bursts. And that's what would happen to these lines.

And basically, you get these huge transformers, some of which are very large; they're as big as a room in your house, they just get destroyed. And they're not mass produced. They have to be built by hand. It could take months to replace them. And that's why this is such a problem.

S: Yeah, what I've read is that the world makes maybe a hundred of these a year, these large, large, transformers, and has maybe a thousand of them. So, if you think about, and that's at current capacity. Assuming we didn't lose the ability to make these things, because there's no power ...

P: A good point!

S: It would take 10 years to replace the world's supply of these things.

P: Probably, yeah.

S: So it could easily, we could easily have power outages that take years, like several years to rectify.

P: Yeah, if you think about that, you think about literally sitting down, and saying, for the next five years, I will not have electricity. That's terrifying! The good news is there are people who've been thinking about this, and what they are thinking of doing are launching a series of small satellites that can detect when these things are about to happen. And you put them in orbit around the sun, then they send us a signal, and we might have minutes or hours, or in the best case, days, although that seems unlikely. These particles travel pretty fast.

But even so, an hour or two would be enough to shunt power to different grids, to turn things off, maybe even shut the power off to whole areas, which for a few hours would be a lot better than losing your power for the next year. I like this idea, and I know people researching it. I hope they can come up with something soon.

S: Seems like a worthwhile investment.

P: Yeah, I mean, you're talking about trillions of dollars here, more. Crazy ...

J: Would it be that easy as just turning off our stuff?

P: Not so much turning it off, but turning off the power at the source, and making sure that the power in the power lines themselves is at a much lower capacity so that you have room for the extra electricity to flow through if you need to. I'm oversimplifying, but it's that sort of idea.

S: Yeah.

B: So, Phil, right now, we don't have the probes or satellites in place that could give us warning?

P: As far as I understand it, nothing really dedicated to this. You could use some of the things we have. We do have satellites orbiting closer to the sun, but you want something that's sort of nimble, that can detect these things specifically. You don't want to have some astronomer just happen to notice, "Oh, look! That satellite just go shot-gun blasted by subatomic particles."

We do have those sorts of alerts out; there's a whole system. In fact, here in Boulder, there's the space weather center, the Space Weather Protection Center, Space Weather Prediction Center! That's it! (Laughs) That's what I get for having to think on my feet. And that's their job, to basically, is to monitor the sun, make sure, if it's about to blow out something, that they can warn people in time.

But even if they do, I don't think there's a governmental or electrical system in place that would allow us to do anything about it. And it – that really needs to be set up, as this 2012 event shows us.

S: Yeah.

P: The reason that missed us is because it was aimed the wrong way. There is no reason it could not have been aimed right at us, and we would not be having this conversation right now.

E: So, it's not a matter of if it's gonna happen, it's a matter of when it's gonna happen.

B: Absolutely.

P: Yeah, it's statistically speaking, given enough time, yeah, this is gonna happen again.

B: Well, they're saying, what, 12% ...

S: 12% for the next 10 years! That's a really high probability.

B: Yeah, but the last one 1859. You'd think we'd have had another one squeezed in there at least in between before now.

P: Yeah, those kinds of statistics are a little weird, and I'm not sure how exactly they calculated them. But, that's right. There was an astronomer named Baker who estimated the odds the Earth will get hit by something like this in the next 10 years is 12%, right? 1 out of 8.

But it's hard to say. And yeah, the fact that it's been 160, 170 years, 150 years, whatever it is, kind of shows you that this isn't happening that often, but it does happen. And if we do nothing, yeah, we're basically sealing our fate.

S: Alright, let's move on.

Rangeomorphs (22:54)[edit]

S: Bob, you're gonna tell us about a cool, extinct type of living critter. We don't even really know if we should call them animals.

B: Yeah, it's a little controversial, but there seems to be a little bit of a consensus at least, but the idea is that paleontologists have uncovered new fossils of the earliest multicellular life that was big enough to see with the naked eye, at least.

And the fossils have been known for a while, but they found a new batch of them that were pretty interesting. There's some disagreement, but like I said, but they may be among the first animals that ever existed, and – get this – they were fractals, animal fractals, which is ...

E: Cool!

B: ... just so awesome! So, they're called Rangeomorphs. I think that's how you pronounce that, which is kind of a cool name. They existed in the geological period called the Ediacaran, which lasted from 635 to 541 million years ago. So, incredibly ancient. Now, that was right before the Cambrian period, which you may have heard of.

Now, fossilization is sparse in these ancient rock layers, primarily because lifeforms from that time just didn't have any easily fossilized body parts, or hard shells. And that was because shells hadn't even evolved yet. I mean, that's how long ago we're talking.

But it wasn't just shells though. Most of the structures that we think of as kind of important for animals, I'm talking things like legs, internal organs, nervous systems, even mouths were not anywhere on the entire Earth. Yet these creatures were pretty much cutting edge biotechnology because they were among the very first multicellular life, and they weren't tiny any more. They ranged from 10 centimeters to 2 meters.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world was pretty much single-celled organisms. So, Rangeomorphs had no competition, essentially. So, based on what I've said so far, and if you look at their images, they look like plants. They have these frond-like extensions, that look like fronds or leaves. So, it's easy to think that they were plants. And that would make sense, except for this little fact that they just lived too deep in the oceans for photosynthesis to be of any help.

And, they couldn't even move, which makes them even more seem like plants, but no photosynthesis, then they really couldn't have been plants, not plants that we know of anyway.

So, eating appears to be something that happened to them, instead of an active strategy on their part. Nutrients that just happened to wash over their membranes would be absorbed. And that actually, was not a terrible idea long ago, since the oceans were a surprising nutrient-rich primordial soup – I had to say that – much more so than today.

Now, this method of eating, of just kind of passively waiting for food to come to you would have been facilitated by the body plan of these rangeomorphs. Now, you need lots of surface area, it needs to be maximized so that you could absorb the food that just happens to impact you. So fractal shapes are awesome for that.

We've talked about fractals a little bit before. Fractals are shapes that exhibit self-similarity. Tiny parts of them look like the whole, which means their scale and variance. So, if you zoom in close, or pull out really far away, they pretty much look the same way.

So, these shapes are found all over nature. Coastlines, mountains, clouds, lungs, they're pretty much everywhere. And one of the reasons why they can take up so much space is that they have what's called fractal dimensions, so they could have dimension of not just 2, but 2.5, or 2.6 depending on how close they are to actually becoming 3-dimensional.

So they fill up space with incredible efficiency, which, for example, that's why lungs can be very tiny, but because of their fractal nature, they have a surface area of about 90 square meters!

So, things were going really well for these first animal-like creatures for millions of years until there was this explosion. What explosion was that, Steve?

S: Cambrian explosion?

B: Cambrian explosion, yes! That was a milestone of epic proportions. The fossil record of that period in time shows evolution having this kind of creative spasm. New body plans and phyla appeared for the first time, and so many in fact, that all the phyla that exist today, except for one, I believe, were found there first. That's just kind of like, yep, I'm gonna try all of these different types of body plans, and a whole bunch of them were so successful, they're pretty much still around today.

S: Yeah, but there are lots of phyla in the Cambrian fauna that don't exist any more.

B: Well, yeah, I kind of implied that. I mean, it wasn't 100% successful, but, it was kind of like a scatter shot, and

S: Most of them didn't.

B: a bunch of them didn't, yeah. A lot didn't, but a lot did, and they're still around today. So, nutrient availability went into a steep decline because they have all these bio terminators from the future, but it couldn't be stopped. But I also want to end with the fact that it is still a little bit controversial what they were.

Most scientists seem to think they were an animal of some sort, but there are some that think maybe they were more like algae, or lichens. But there's also another possibility, which I find incredibly intriguing, and that is that they simply belong to a completely different kingdom of life.

It makes me think, what would they be like today if they had the past half a billion years to continue to evolve? So, check 'em out online. They're fascinating, and beautiful, and they might just be the first animals that existed, and they were fractals!

S: It's also my understanding is it's still not entirely clear whether or not the Ediacaran fauna led to the Cambrian fauna.

B: Yeah, exactly.

S: Or were they completely separate? Again,

B: Right

S: Were they wiped out by the Cambrian fauna? Did they just, were they on the way out anyway, and the Cambrian fauna would fill in the gap? We just don't know, I think, what happened.

B: Yeah, it's unclear what the relationship was, whether they were completely distinct and unrelated, or they had some impact on at least some of the new phyla that appeared. Hard to say.

Shark Week Pseudoscience (28:56)[edit]

S: Well, we're gonna talk about a different type of animalcule. Jay, I know that you love sharks, and you just love to talk about sharks as often as possible, especially if they're being fired out of tornadoes.

(Rogues laugh)

J: Yeah, well, I did invent that movie, by the way.

S: Yeah, Sharknado movie?

E: Yeah, I agree.

J: I did, which is pretty awesome. I happen to love sharks; I think they're fascinating. I just don't want to be in water anywhere near one that could eat me. That's my relationship with sharks. But the Discovery Channel on the other hand has quite a different kind of relationship with sharks. They are completely bilking sharks for all they're worth. They're even bilking sharks that don't even exist for all they're worth.

(Bob laughs)

J: So what am I talking about? We got Shark Week that started this week, and a lot of people carve out a lot of personal time to watch it. And apparently, Discovery Channel does very well with Shark Week.

S: They'll put anything on the Discovery Channel.

J: The opening of Shark Week this week started with a show called, "Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine."[6]

(Steve laughs)

J: It kind of sounds like cave man talk in a way, doesn't it? So this show is about a 35 foot long great white shark. And they say "Wrath of Submarine" because they're saying it's the size of a submarine. And it also, supposedly, attacked people off the coast of South Africa. And the submarine shark actually was an urban legend that was started by a journalist in the 1970's, who were trying to fool and make fun of the public.

But, what ended up happening was the Discovery Channel's producers apparently heard about that, and they decided that they were gonna make a two hour special about this provable, very easily provable fake folklore. And, it's okay though, guys. Don't worry about it, because they included a brief disclaimer – Evan, settle down – the disclaimer reads, "Its existence is highly controversial. Events have been dramatized, but many believe Submarine exists to this day."

E: Well, you know, you could put the word "leprechaun" in there too.

S: Yeah.

E: I mean, that's so ridiculous.

J: It's existence is not.

S: Or an eskimo.

J: It's not highly controversial.

(Evan laughs)

J: I have to take apart this sentence because every point that they make is wrong. It's not highly controversial at all because like I just said ...

S: It's fake.

J: It was absolutely faked in the 1970's. With very, a little bit of research, you're gonna find that out. "Events have been dramatized." All events on this particular program were not dramatized, they were completely made up. No one is expanding on the truth here. This is a total and whole cloth, 100% made up.

"Many believe that Submarine exists to this day." Yeah? Who? Let's talk to those people that believe that Submarine exists to this day. Here we are with a two hour show that kicks off Shark Week, and I am labeling this as two hour show full of bull shark, thank you. Wow, too bad Rebecca wasn't here, because I really, she would have loved that.

E: A bull shark is a kind of shark.

J: Now, look, this is what we can absolutely determine from that particular show that they sharted, they started (chuckling) they sharted.

(Rogues laugh)

B: Sharted! Nice!

J: That they started Shark Week with.

(Bob laughs)

J: It's total BS, and they 100% know it. And you know what? I'll tell you why. They know it, because they made up 100% of the show! So, they know it's BS because they made it all up! There's not a producer there that doesn't know that they made the entire thing up. So, thank you Discovery Channel. Great science, great education, and thanks for not cashing in.

Last year, they started shark Week, or they at least featured Shark Week with a documentary called, "Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives." Now, minute amount of research here shows that there's absolutely no proof that there's a Megalodon living today. That Megalodon lived millions of years ago – not thousands, not hundreds – millions of years ago.

S: Yeah, it's like saying there's a dinosaur around today.

B: Right. And just for background, a megalodon is pretty much like a white shark on steroids. It was bigger than a bus. What was it? 40, 50 feet long, total meat eater ...

S: (Accent) Forget about it.

B: just the nastiest shark that ever lived.

J: Bob, according to Discovery Channel, there's one hunting around Florida. With all of the people that go to the beach at Florida, and not one legitimate sighting, or one death. But it's there, it's there. Watch it!

B: I don't know what they're smoking.

P: You know, I have to say, I've worked with Discovery Channel. Steve, you said they'll put anything on the air, except the 4th episode of my show!

(Rogues laugh)

P: That wasn't their fault, but that's (inaudible)

S: You're not bitter.

P: No, actually, I'm not. But I've done a lot of shows with Discovery Network since then. How the Universe Works, and a few other Science Channel, and when they do good, they do good. And when they do bad, they screw up. And this was a big screw up, just like it was last year with Megalodon. And they really need to rethink Shark Week because the Discovery Channel and Science Channel, their brand is reality! It's science! And this is neither of those. And they need to...

S: They're destroying their brand.

P: Yes, they're destroying their brand, and I think they need to

E: This is ...

P: apologize for this.

E: I agree with all that. Isn't this one of their highest rated weeks though?

B: Oh my god!

E: Of the year?

B: It's gargantuan! It's a cultural event!

P: Yeah, it's part of the public ...

E: Megalodon of shows!

J: I have a couple more important points to make here, guys. Listen to what they're actually doing. They interview quite a few legitimate scientists, and what they do is they completely scam them! They pretend that they're filming for a completely different show, they ask them a bunch of questions that are loose in such a way where when the scientist answers them, they already know how they're going to use the answer.

They're very good at crafting these fake show ideas, and they're asking them questions saying, "Hey, was that shark really big?" And then the scientist goes, "Yeah! That shark was huge!" Right? What shark? They take all these comments out of context, they build a fake show out of it, then they put these poor scientists on the show, and they're like, "Wait a second! I did a show about X, Y, and Z, not the wrath of Submarine! What the hell is this? And that statement I just made wasn't about the Submarine!"

S: Yeah, yeah.

J: So,

E: They took a page from Ben Stein's Expelled.

J: Right.

P: That's what I was reminded of here. And that weird geocentric movie that came out where Captain Janeway disavow it. It was all very weird.

E: Yeah.

J: So, I hear ya, Phil. There are different producers at Discovery, and sometimes they make a good show, and sometimes, like Shark Week, some of it, if not a lot of it, is not good. I mean, if you go back to the beginning of Shark Week, when they first came out, it was real science on there!

P: Yeah. Yeah.

J: And now it's riddled with garbage, you have a lot of students now going and asking, like, one of the professors, a biologist, was saying, he said 500 students come up and ask him about megalodon. Does it exist? And, you know, no! I'm sorry, it doesn't exist! Where'd you hear that? Shark Week? Yeah, okay, well, that's not true.

S: And there's so many actual, cool sharks to talk about. I mean, it's not like there's a dearth of material here. You know what my daughter, Julia's favorite shark, or shark-like creature is?

J: What?

S: Helicoprion? Did we discuss this guy?

J: What's it got?

S: It's an extinct shark-like animal. It's a eugeneodontid holocephalid fish. Sure you guys are familiar with those.

E: Duh!

S: Yeah.

E: It's kosher.

S: Lived about 310 million years ago. So, it's lower jaw, the teeth in its lower jaw would come out, and then, you know how sharks, they get the perpetual teeth that keep coming out. Well, the old teeth would spiral around and inward, so it literally had a spiral of teeth in its lower jaw, which became like a circular saw.

B: Oh, wow!

S: And,

E: Ouch.

S: And would, I guess it would just chew things up with that. Look it up, Heliocoprion, totally cool.

J: I like the frill shark. And in case you're interested, on the SGU News site, that's, we have a listing of five cool sharks for Weird Wildlife Wednesday, so that this post goes out every Wednesday. We put some interesting wildlife on there. So, we have five really cool sharks on there if you want to get real information on real sharks, take a look.

B: And you have to check out the goblin shark. That is the creepiest shark in existence, and it's alive today. When you see it, you will say, "What the F is that?" It's just an amazingly awesome looking shark. And at first, you're like, "Is that even a shark?" That's how weird it is.

Cervical Manipulation and Strokes (37:46)[edit]

S: The next news item is a very quick update. We've talked before about cervical manipulation and dissections. A dissection is basically a tear on the inside of an artery. When that happens, a clot could form there, which could either block blood flow to the artery, or the clot could go downstream, lodge, and cause a stroke. So, they're very dangerous. They can cause strokes, even death.

In young people, an arterial dissection, is actually a not uncommon cause of stroke because they otherwise don't have strokes, where they're at lower risk for them.

One question has been, when chiropractors do cervical manipulation, does that increase the risk for arterial dissection, specifically for tibial artery dissection. The problem is there is no definitive data on this. It's the kind of thing that would be hard to have definitive data on because you can't do the kind of controlled studies that you would need, which is almost universally true when it comes to negative outcomes.

Like, you can't do something to somebody to see if they get a negative outcome, you know what I mean? So, it's hard to design those studies. That's the reason, for example, why there are no controlled studies linking smoking to lung cancer. They're all observational studies, you know?

E: Unethical.

S: You can't say, "You people over there are gonna smoke, and you people are not gonna smoke, and we're gonna see who dies first." You can't do that.

So, anyway, recently the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association came out with a fairly thorough review of cervical arterial dissections, and their association with cervical manipulative therapy. Very good, it's a good summary. It's very thorough. And the bottom line is that they conclude that there is an association between manipulation and tibial artery dissection. However, a causal relationship is not proven. Then they go on to recommend caution before getting manipulative therapy.

I actually thought that their conclusions were overly conservative. And part of it is because they're erring on the side of caution, and there's a few things they didn't consider. One is they put too much stock, I think, in the Cassidy study. This is now an infamous study where chiropractors looked at the association between dissection and visits to a chiropractor. I'm sorry, they actually looked at the association between stroke and visits to a chiropractor. And stroke a visits to a primary care doctor. And they found that they were about the same. So they said, "See? Therefore, going to a chiropractor doesn't cause stroke."

But it was a terrible study. They looked at older patients. Most of the strokes that occur in older patients are not due to dissection. They looked at strokes without ever determining whether or not they were dissections or not. And they didn't find out what people were getting done at their chiropractic visit. So, it was really, really, just sloppy, bad data, that didn't directly address the question. We've reviewed this study on Science Based Medicine before. There's basically, it's basically a fatally flawed study that does not really answer the question.

But if you talk to chiropractors about this, they'll just say, "The Cassidy study, the Cassidy study! That shows there's no association." So, and I think that this new review put too much, I think, weight on that study, and underestimated its flaws.

Secondly, the thing is, yes, you have a correlation here. And correlation does not prove causation. But it can be evidence for causation depending on the type of correlation that you have. Here we have people who go to a chiropractor, and sometimes immediately afterwards, get a dissection and a stroke.

But if you look at it within 24 hours, that was another problem with the Cassidy study. They looked at a much longer time scale. If you look at it over the next 24 hours in young patients, that there is definitely this correlation. It is in the right sequence to be causative.

The one legitimate point is that people who have neck pain may go to the chiropractor to treat their neck pain, when in fact it was a dissection all along. And that's what the chiropractors say. But interestingly, that's not that much of a defense because if you have a dissection, the last thing you should do is get your neck manipulated.

So, saying that, "Oh, we're manipulating people who already have a dissection," that's hardly a defence. Does that make sense? You guys understand that?

J: Sure.

B: Oh yeah.

S: Yeah, so, anyway, it was a good review. The data clearly shows an association. There's multiple lines of evidence that show there's a plausible connection there. And, taken all of that, here's the thing. You know, we, in medicine, we look at risk versus benefit. What's the benefit of cervical manipulative therapy? Nothing! There's no proven benefit.

So, if you have, if it's zero, then even though dissection is rare, it's really serious – stroke and death are bad outcomes. So even though they may be rare, it's still, it's not worth it because there's no evidence of any benefit. What the studies we do have show that doing much gentler manipulation, what we call mobilization, is just as effective, although it's not clear that either of them work.

But even in the best case scenario, you could get away with just gentle mobilization, and without the risk of dissection. But what's incredible is how angry chiropractors get when you talk about this, and how unwilling they are to look at the risks of their own interventions.

P: Well, of course! Right? They don't want to hear that they're hurting people.

E: Bad for business, bad for business.

S: They don't have the, that's the thing. A culture of business, not a culture of scientific evidence.

iPhone Performance (44:49)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on to our last news item. For this item, we called in an expert. So, let's go to that interview right now.

(Brief silence)

S: Joining us now is Rene Richie. Rene, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

RR: Thank you so much for having me.

S: Now, Rene, you're joining us today just for one issue that we want to talk to you about. You're the editor in chief for iMore, which is an online site that is pretty much dedicated to the iPhone, is that accurate?

RR: It's Apple in general, so iPhone, iPad, Mac, and the related software.

S: Ok, great. And I understand you're also the cohost of seven different podcasts?

RR: Yeah, we're gonna reduce that somewhat, but that's currently the case, yes.

S: So, yeah, again, we wanted to talk tonight about this charge that Apple deliberately throttles back the iPhone when a new model update is coming up, so that people will feel frustrated with their iPhone and want to buy the new model. Do you know about this accusation, and what do you think about it?

RR: It's been leveled previously. The current version was actually an analysis of Big Data, and they were trying to show you why correlation wasn't causality. That because people searched for the term "iPhone slow," it didn't mean that there was actually anything wrong with the software. It had to do a lot with perception, and with just the fact of running new software on older hardware.

S: So, the data was showing that people were searching more on the terms of "iPhone slow" just prior to the release of a new model.

RR: Yeah.

S: That doesn't show that it actually was slower.

RR: No. Well, a lot of this is perception. So, what usually happens is, two days before a new iPhone is released, Apple releases a new version of the system software, of iOS. And several things happen at that point. So, first, it gets pushed out to tens of millions of people, because Apple has an incredibly unified software ecosystem. And they could be running devices going back several years, so three, maybe four generations.

And when those people start to download that, first of all, you have a change. It's like, when you buy a blue car. Suddenly, you see all these blue cars. So, because you know something has changed, you're paying more attention than you used to. But also, when you update, a lot of things happen. For example, iOS starts reindexing everything. It starts migrating libraries. And all of that stuff does add extra overhead at first. But that overhead usually clears out after the first day.

But by then, because you're already paying more attention, you have sort of a heightened sense of it. And also, it adds new functionality. For example, in one generation, they added multitasking application programming interfaces. In another one, background refresh. And all of this takes more resources. And older devices are more resource constrained.

Most of them, you can go in and shut off, but by default, they're on. So, on older hardware, you're now running more things, and that comes at the expense of, you know, you can do a few things really, really fast, 'cause you're adding more things, everything wants its fair share of the resources.

E: But the people actually are making this search. They're doing the Google search for it, and it does, like you said, correlate. However, you're saying it's psychological in that people have this perception that their phone is slowed down, is the cause of this. Is that correct?

RR: Yes. It's two things. It's the initial updating mechanism itself. It's the new functionality it introduces, which is a heavier load on the device. But it's also the perception. And especially if there are fancy, new features on new hardware that you don't get, you're already a little bit upset by that. So you might be more inclined to find fault than you would otherwise be.

S: Yeah. So, it might actually be slower because of the software update. They're not deliberately throttling back the throughput of the phone.

RR: It's an incredibly tough situation, because they're caught literally between a rock and a hard place. If they don't provide these updates for people, they'll get yelled at. For example, one generation, when they went to the iPhone 3GS, they didn't provide video recording for the previous generation phone. And people were hugely upset. And they got accused of deliberately crippling the previous phone to force people to upgrade.

So when they don't add features, there's an element of the population that's upset. And when they do, there's an element. But more importantly, by providing these updates, they ensure binary compatibility. So if you, for example, they're gonna release iOS 8 in September, and devices that don't get that will not be able to run apps that require IOS 8.

And that would be, that is an even bigger problem than not having new features, because increasingly, apps are gonna require new versions of the software.

S: They usually force you to update your iOS, right? I mean, I've used an iPhone and tried to install an app, and it basically forced me to update the IOS before I can install the app.

RR: There's a, yeah, there's a couple things that happen there. For hardware that can't run it, it won't force you. It will keep you on whatever the last version of that software is. For everything else, the iOS is a security first operating system. Everything about it. Apple published a white paper last year on how elaborate, and how elaborately they were securing iOS as an operating system.

And part of that is providing software updates and security updates. And when you have operating systems that aren't updated as much, or don't bring tens of millions of people with them, then those become susceptible to exploits, whether it's browser based exploits or apps doing malicious things; and that's not a problem Apple wants their users to have to deal with.

S: So, it sounds like that's a perfectly reasonable explanation for why there's the perception of slowness around the time of an iPhone update. But, just to ask flat out, do you think that Apple ever manipulates the performance, or any features of their phones in order to encourage people to buy the new model. Or are they just hoping that people are gonna want to buy it because it's the latest and greatest new thing?

RR: I think that, first of all, I think they don't do that, because part of the experience of buying a new iPhone, part of the value of buying a new iPhone is that you know that Apple's gonna support it for a certain period of time; and if they get a reputation for not supporting it, or for doing anything duplicitous with it, that would no longer be the case; and they will lose that value. And people might look elsewhere for their phones.

But also, because, especially in North America, where there's the carrier contract cycle. Traditionally, it was 2 years, and you could basically get a new phone either cheaply, or even for free on some carriers. And now carriers have accelerated update programs where you pay a little bit more, but you can get cheaper phones faster.

So, I think Apple knows that people are gonna update their phones regularly. Two generations is not a long period of time. So, there's even less incentive for anyone to do that.

And just anecdotally, it seems, based on prior history that they do everything they can to bring as many features as they can, and do as much performance as they can, forward. Now, they're constrained in resources, which sounds silly because they're a hundred billion dollar company, but there's only so many engineers. You know, Facebook is hiring. Google is hiring. Not everyone wants to move to Cupertino. There's startup culture to deal with.

But they devote as much resources as they can to make sure older devices get as much attention as they can.

S: Yeah. There's enough competition from Android that they have to keep their customers happy.

RR: Absolutely.

E: Now, but why did these con- ... you said that this had been happening for some time. This is not a new conspiracy theory; it's been happening for several years. You know, the last few releases of the iPhone, and stuff. So, is your work having an effect on peoples' understanding of what's going on? Or is it just too big an ocean to hold back, in a sense.

RR: Well, I mean, I'm sure it's the same in any area of science where you – I'm not relating this to a science in any way – but, you always have people who are skeptical; and you always have people who are inclined to distrust large companies, or to just distrust any point of view, or disagree with it. So there'll always be someone coming along.

And for example, I think that recent article in New York Times was an example of this because toward the bottom of that article, they state very clearly that this was about Big Data, and about the dangers of mistaking correlation for causation in Big Data. And that article was widely reblogged as "Apple has a conspiracy!"

S: It's the opposite.

RR: And that shows me there's a profound lack of (chuckles) reading going on.

S: Absolutely. Alright, well, Rene, thank you so much for straightening all that out for us.

RR: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on. I'm honored.

E: Thanks Rene.

S: Alright, take care.

RR: Thank you.

Who's That Noisy (52:35)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Luray Caverns Stalactite Organ

S: Well, Evan, it's time to catch us up on Who's That Noisy.

E: Okay, Steve. And we'll play for you last week's Who's That Noisy, this little diddy that we played for you. Here we go!

(Piano-like instrument plays a snippet of music)

E: Right? You guys remember that?

S: Oh yeah!

J: I do.

E: Now, Steve, you had told me last week off the air, that you knew exactly what that was.

S: I recognized it, because I've been there. I've physically been there.

E: And where is there, in this context?

S: Those are at the Luray Caverns in Virginia.

E: Luray. L-U-R-A-Y, correct.

S: Yeah, the Luray Caverns in Virginia. It's the largest stalactite organ. Those caverns are beautiful. If you're definitely in that part of the country, it's worth a quick stop off to go down there. But yeah, I remember that. I remember that they had the stalactites tuned to different notes, and it's like all over the cavern. You're standing in the middle of it. It's all over the cavern, different stalactites are played.

J: And I'm sure that that sound fills up the cavern, huh Steve?

S: Oh, yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah.

E: It is technically the largest instrument in the world. So it holds that distinction. The stalactites cover three and a half acres if you can believe that. And it produces these tones when electronically tapped by rubber tipped mallets. It was invented in 1954 by Leland W Sprinkle of Springfield, Virginia, who was a mathematician and electronic scientist at the Pentagon.

Very cool. So he put his vast basis of knowledge to good use here making this amazing instrument. I want to get down there some time. We had a lot of correct answers for this one. Actually, we had a lot of incorrect ones as well. It was a good week for responses.

A lot of people thought this was perhaps the Glass Armonica, the invention of Benjamin Franklin from way back when. But that was actually a Noisy from many years ago. We've actually already covered that one. So, well done to everyone who guessed correctly. And this week's winner is James Letham. We drew your name of all the correct ones. So, congratulations. Your name will go in the year-end drawing.

And we want to send a thank you out to Holly Michol for sending me the suggestion to use it as last week's Who's Than Noisy. Thank you Holly; we do appreciate that.

New Noisy[edit]

E: Now, for this week, wait 'till you get a load of this. This is ... yeah. I'm gonna let it speak for itself because I'm almost at a loss as to what to say here. Here you go. Enjoy.

(Two women speaking)

??: 90% of the psychics working are fakes.

?: They are.

??: Well, we're the most documented psychics in the world. And don't go to a psychic unless they have a proven track record of accurate predictions. Seriously, you'll waste your money.

S: Well, I agree that you will waste your money, yeah.

E: (Chuckles) Yeah, don't waste your money on the bogus psychics. Only go to the real ones, because 90% of them are bogus. 10% are real. Want to know who you think said that. And you have to let us know. Let us know by email, That's the email address for Who's That Noisy related items. Or if you want, go on to our message boards., and look for the link called Who's That Noisy, or the thread, I should say. Who's That Noisy, and post your guess there. Should be fun. We'll reveal it next week. Good luck everyone.

S: Thank you Evan.

E: Thank you.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Ebola Virus Follow up (56:19)[edit]

S: Alright guys, we have a couple of quick updates. Actually, one is a correction from last week. Jay, you talked about the Ebola Virus.

J: I did.

S: I got a few emails correcting us on one point.

J: I only got one thing wrong on the whole news item. That's pretty good.

S: Well, I'm not saying that. This is the one that people pointed out.

J: Well, I got something wrong. Apparently, the ... in last week's show, I said that there is an incubation period from when you catch the virus until when you actually start to show symptoms, and it was, what? I believe I said 2 ... You catch it from 2 to 5 days, and you could not show symptoms up to day 21, I believe, were the correct numbers.

S: It's yeah, so the, yeah, 2 to 21 days is the incubation period.

J: So, during the incubation period, you are most likely, you're not able to give the virus to somebody else.

S: Yeah.

J: You're not shedding in a way that you're gonna give it to other people.

S: So, yeah, by definition, you're asymptomatic. And essentially, and I've read multiple sources on this, there's actually some misinformation out there. Some sites say that you can transmit it during the incubation period. But I did find published studies showing that when patients are not symptomatic, they do not seem to be contagious.

So, during incubation period, it looks like they're not contagious. But I don't, I think that some sites were unwilling to commit to the idea that there's no way to transmit the virus while you're in the incubation period because it seems that as long as the virus is in your system, it's possible to give it to another person.

So, it's not very contagious, but I mean, I don't think we could say 100% that there's no way to transmit it when you're in the incubation period. It's just that there's less of the virus around, so you're gonna be transmitting less in body fluids, or with direct, physical contact.

The Hobbit follow up (58:14)[edit]

S: Alright, one other quick follow up. We talked about the hobbit last week.

E: Four hobbitses!

S: Homo floresiensis. So, I mentioned that there are essentially two schools of thought; one that the fossils represent a new hominin species; the other that it's a homo sapiens that's either just ... a pygmy, or a diseased individual, developmental problem; and scientists published a new study claiming that it was a person with Down syndrome.

Although I said, "I don't think this is necessarily gonna be the last word, not until I hear from the scientists claiming this is a new species, that they acquiesce. So, in the interim, I did find that there are scientists who are already disagreeing with the Down syndrome conclusion.

They're saying that the researchers were cherry picking features; they were ignoring features such as the anatomy of the wrist, which is very primitive, which can't be explained on the basis of Down syndrome, and therefore that's really not a good explanation. The authors, like, Eckhardt, who were saying that it is Down's syndrome, are rejecting those criticisms.

So, bottom line: This fight isn't over. The two sides are sticking to their guns. Basically, sticking to their position; one side saying it's a new species of hominin; the other saying that it's a diseased homo sapiens. And the controversy continues and certainly may not be resolved definitively until we find new specimens; that may be the case.

E: Sounds like an ad hominem attack.

Science or Fiction (1:01:34)[edit]

Item #1: An examination of certain Cro-Magnon remains suggests that a mummification process was used, not unlike early Egyptian techniques.[9]
Item #2: For the first time, a scientist has developed a technique for creating glass out of elemental metal.[10]
Item #3: A new study finds that certain “rubble asteroids” are held together by more than their mutual gravity, and that some other unidentified force is involved.[11]

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake! Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake! Is everyone ready for this week?

B: Yes.

S: You have three interesting news items this week, no theme though.

P: I don't think I've ever gotten this right. Maybe some SGU historians would know, for the dozen times I've been on the show, I really don't think I've ever been right.

S: (Chuckling) Okay, well you got one more shot.

P: Even when I've known, like, one of them was real or something.

B: It's true!

S: Alright, here we go. #1: An examination of certain Cro-Magnon remains suggests that a mummification process was used, not unlike early Egyptian techniques. Item #2: For the first time, a scientist has developed a technique for creating glass out of elemental metal. And item #3: A new study finds that certain rubble asteroids are held together by more than their mutual gravity, and that some other unidentified force is involved.

Phil, I'm gonna go easy on you. I won't make you go first. I'll improve your chances of getting it correct. So, Jay, why don't you go first?

J: The first one about Cro-Magnon remains, and that they used some type of Egyptian-like mummification techniques. I don't see that being that wild. I could see them doing some things that... because this is so unclear. They could have done certain things to help preserve the body, maybe they found some naturally occurring plant or whatever, and they... I could just see them finding herbs and whatnot that could have done something.

And because this one is not that clear, you know, you said it's not unlike early Egyptian techniques. I don't know what the early Egyptian techniques were. I know what the later techniques definitely were. But I'm not crystal clear if there was a big variation between early and late. So that one's a maybe.

Okay, so now we go on to #2, and this one is about creating a glass out of elemental metal. If I were to strictly define glass, I'm pretty sure that glass is made out of sand. Right out of the gate I can draw a line to where it seems like it might just be BS. I'm not sure about this one.

And then finally, the one about the rubble asteroids, and that there's some sort of unknown or unidentified force keeping them together. I really don't like that. I don't like the unidentified force idea. It doesn't mean that it's a force that has never been discovered, or studied; it means that some other force that we're not sure which one it is, is holding these asteroids together.

I'm gonna say that the elemental metal one is the fake.

S: Okay. Evan.

E: Cro-Magnon remains suggesting a mummification process was used, not unlike early Egyptian techniques. I don't have a problem with this one, really. You know, the strange thing being that it ties into the same techniques, or similar techniques that the Egyptians used, but ... how many different kinds of ways can you mummify people? I imagine there are several. But that the earlier people, Cro-Magnons, stumbled upon a way of doing it, and certain Cro-Magnon remains, right? So, parts of the body then? Maybe the head or something? So, I think that one's gonna be right.

The one for creating glass out of elemental metal. So, my first thought was that, how you gonna ... my first vision of glass is that it's clear. But I guess the glass didn't have to be clear, otherwise, how are you gonna get elemental metal to come out clear? I don't know if that's been really happening yet in the world of science. So, I don't know about that one.

The last one, the rubble asteroids held together by more than their mutual gravity – an unidentified force is involved. I guess, what? The math doesn't work out exactly? That if you just take gravity, there's something missing? And therefore, whatever it is has to, is otherwise unidentified. I don't know about that one.

But the one about glass kind of struck me the wrong way. I don't know that they've really figured that out yet. So I think I'm gonna lean with Jay, and go with that one, that the elemental metal one is the fiction.

S: Okay. Bob?

B: Let's see. The Cro-Magnon mummification. Yeah, I'm not sure about that. That just seems a little too sophisticated. I mean, I know they were people, just like us. It's not like they were Neanderthals, they were just a race of people. So it's not like they had any mental shortcomings to potentially figuring that out, but it just seems like Egypt had a well developed culture that this mummification process grew up in. I think the Cro-Magnons didn't have anything near that. But, then again, what do you mean by early Egyptian techniques?

See, we've got the creating glass. Yeah, I don't have much of a problem with that one. I guess the key fact here is that it's elemental? But I just can't think of a reason why they couldn't make some sort of, you know, what is it, amorphous, non-crystalline solid out of metal. That would pretty much make it a glass. I mean, a glass doesn't have to be glass as we know it. There's lots of different types of glasses.

The rubble asteroid. Yeah, I could imagine some sort of, some force that hasn't been identified. It would be cool if it was some effect, like, say, the van der Waals force, that we just, similar to that, that we haven't identified – that's how geckos and spiders can crawl on anything. Using those intermolecular forces.

I don't think it's necessarily that, but that would be interesting if that's true. Probably have some impact on how we deal with asteroids too if its ...

I'm gonna say that, something about the mummy one is rubbing me wrong. I'm gonna say that one's fiction.

S: Alright, Phil, the three rogues are trying to help you out. What do you think?

P: Okay, well, I'm going to cheat, because it just so happens the rubble asteroids one is the one I know about. I'm the last one, right?

S: Yeah.

P: That one I know is true.

J: Alright!

(Evan laughs)

P: So, I'll throw that out there, because I have to. My hand has been forced. There's an asteroid named DA-50, or 1950 DA, that is spinning so quickly, that if it were just a rubble pile, it would fly apart. And so there must be some other force holding it together. The problem is, I have only seen a press release and not a paper. But that one is right. So, I will push that one aside.

Now, the other two. "For the first time, scientists have developed a technique for creating glass out of elemental metal!" A glass is an amorphous solid, which can go from a brittle state to a liquid, to a gloppy state in this transition. I happen to know that. That strikes me as being true. There are metals that are brittle under certain circumstances, and I can imagine that if you do something to them, they can become an amorphous solid, like a glass. I don't know this one, I have not heard this at all. I expect it is one of these things where it's happening under tremendous pressure, like in the centers of planets or something like that.

B: Yeah, that's a good bet.

P: That's what I'm guessing is going on. So that one has the ring of truth. The first one, "An examination of Cro-Magnon remains suggest a mummification process." That one bugs me because I don't think Cro-Magnon, I want to say that they had, they buried their dead, but they did, they had jewelry, and things like that, I think. But it never really got past that. So this idea of mummification, which kind of indicates an understanding of death a little bit more than maybe, that I ... the last time I read anything about what their culture was like, it was a while ago. So my memory on this is fuzzy.

But that one strikes me as being too much. So, I think the glass one is real, the asteroid one is real, and the Cro-Magnon remains being mummified is the fiction.

B: Good choice, Phil!

S: Alright! So, we got an even split, but you all agree that a new study finds that certain rubble asteroids are held together by more than their mutual gravity, and that some other unidentified force is involved. You all think that one is science, and that one is ...

Now, what do you think the force might be that is holding the asteroid together if this one were to be true?

P: Dark energy!

E: Undetermined, yeah.

S: Let me read you ...

E: (Inaudible) forcing! I dunno.

B: Wink Martindale!

S: Let me read you the actual headline in Nature. "Near Earth asteroid held together by weak force."

P: Really! That's what they said? O-h-h-h!

S: This one is true. This one is science.

B: The weak force?

S: That headline caught my eye. I'm like, "Really? The weak nuclear force?"

B: No way! I'm sure, no!

P: The weak force!

E: They don't know what they're saying!

P: It's a weak force.

S: A weak force. It's not the weak force!

B: Yes!

J: So, what was it!

S: That one is true. So, it's 1950 DA. And it is spinning so it goes around once every 2.1 hours. However, gravity could only hold it together so that it could spin at once every 2.2 hours. So it's spinning a little faster than gravity would allow. It should be flinging apart. So there must be something else sticking the rocks together, and it's weak, because you don't need that much. But they make no speculation as to what that is.

They know it's a rubble pile asteroid because of its density. Rocks, but it's much less dense than rocks. So it's got to be a lot of air pockets in there. It has the characteristics that we've come to associate with these so-called rubble-pile asteroid.

P: Not really air pockets; it's out in space.

S: Well, yeah, you know what I mean. (Phil laughs) Vacuum pockets.

P: Yeah. I think they just call 'em cavities.

S: Cavities, yeah.

J: But, Steve, couldn't it really just be some type of liquid that is making things stick together more?

S: I don't know.

B: Liquid in space?

P: Well, I tell ya, I got a press release about this a couple of hours ago, which is how I knew about it.

S: Yeah.

P: And the press release actually says it might be a van der Waals force.

S: Yeah.

P: It's like a surface tension.

S: Almost like a surface tension for solids.

P: It's more like a surface tension, yeah. And it's, what's interesting is they said that, and there's no explanation of it. It just says, "A team studied near Earth asteroid 1950-DA, and discovered that the body is held together by cohesive forces called van der Waals forces." But that's it. They just declare that. There's no link to a paper. So I didn't even see the paper.

S: Well, Nature has a little bit more. This is not the original paper, but they go into more detail.

P: Well, the funny thing here is that the press release has two errors in it. It says that another asteroid was caught by the Hubble Space Telescope is falling apart, possibly due to a collision with a meteor. No, it wasn't a meteor. (Steve laughs) It was another asteroid. (Evan laughs) Meteor is the thing that burns up in the Earth's atmosphere.

E: Yeah.

P: And then it also says the Rosetta spacecraft landed on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It said it landed on the comet's surface last week. And it's like, no! It's actually moving along with the comet. It's going to send off a lander in November. So, the press release doesn't have the information I wanted, and it has a couple of mistakes in it. So I thought that was pretty interesting.

S: Don't you think that that was an unfortunate headline choice by calling it ...

P: Held together by the weak force!

S: Held together by weak force. I mean, you used the term "weak force," and you don't think people are gonna think that's the weak force?

We'll go back to #1. An examination of certain Cro-Magnon remains suggests that a mummification process was used not unlike Egyptian techniques. Evan and Jay think this is science. Bob and Phil think this one is the fiction. And this one is... Now, is it Cro-MA-nyon? Or Cro-MAG-non?

P: It's French. It's Cro-MA-nyon.

S: Yeah, it's Cro-MA-nyon. It's like Nee-AN-der-thal and Nee-AN-der-tal. Although I've gone back to Nee-AN-der-thal because I just, screw it, it sounds better. But, yeah, it is Cro-MA-nyon.

E: Cro-Magnon for short.

S: Yeah. So they, Cro-Magnon were fully modern humans. They were European Upper Paleolithic humans, basically, from the region of France. Around 43,000 years ago. So they're just basically a race, if you will, or a population of early humans. So, there's no reason to think they weren't roughly as intelligent as we are.

But, this one is... the fiction!

P: Yes! Hoa! Hoa!

S: You did it, Phil! You did it!

E: Well done, Phil.

P: Yay!

E: I'm happy for you, and Bob (inaudible).

J: I had to lose, right Ev? It's good to give Phil a win.

E: Absolutely.

S: Did any of you see the actual news item?

P: No.

E: Hell, no.

S: So, what they did find was Egyptian mummies about 2,000 years older than they thought they were making them. This was a study published in PLOS One. So ...

P: That's a long time. Holy cow!

S: Yeah, so, prior to this, the earliest known use of resin for mummification was around 2200 BC, or BCE depending on your preference. And this one, they found, because, well, these are actually, these were funerary wrappings from grave sites near the Nile river called Mostagedda. They were excavated in the 1920's and 30's. But, you know, things like this sit around museums for decades, and then people decide to take a look at them. They were carbon dated to 4200 BC.

E: 42!

S: So, they were looking at the wrappings, and not only did they date to between ... the oldest was 4200 BC. The more recent one was 3150. And then, under microscopic examination, they found the linens were impregnated with certain resins, similar to the resins used in later mummification. About 5 to 20% of the blend was made up of pine resin. And they also found evidence that these resins were deliberately heated, which is part of the technique, you know, if you're trying to do it for mummification.

So this is essentially, their use of these resins as an antibacterial, to protect the body from bacterial decay. So, part of the mummification process. So, the Egyptian mummification tradition goes back a lot farther than we thought!

J: That's really cool.

P: That's very cool!

S: Yeah, it's pretty cool, huh?

P: I have to admit something here, and that is I, for some reason, in my brain got neanderthals and Cro-Magnon backwards. And that's why I thought this one was wrong. I was thinking they were neanderthals. And neanderthals ...

S: Got it right for the wrong reason.

P: I got it right for ... well, in fact ...

E: That actually counts, Phil? To trust me?

B: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah.

P: I think I still would have, I still would have gone the way I did because I still think the metal thing is real. So, I'm being honest here, I would fully admit it if I were, you know.

S: That's funny, because when you were describing that, I'm like, "God, that's actually a better description of neanderthals, what he's saying," but ...

P: Yeah, it's because that's what it was.

S: Yeah, okay.

P: (Growls) Okay. So, tell us about metals.

S: Alright, yeah. For the first time, a scientist has developed a technique for creating glass out of elemental metal. That one is very cool science. I love the materials science. This is also published in, where was it? This was published in Materials Science. The name of the article is "Metal Turned to Glass."

A single author, Gilles Tarjus, T-A-R-J-U-S. So, here's the thing. Glass is not just the kind of stuff that we make our windows out of. It is a solid that is amorphous, and essentially, solids have a tendency to crystallize, right? For their molecules to form particular arrangement.

Metals themselves have a tremendous propensity to crystallize when they cool. So, if you melt a metal, turn it into a liquid, and then cool it, it will, it really wants to crystallize. And so far, scientists have not figured out how to get any elemental metal - meaning just one element – to not crystallize as it cools.

They have been able to use a couple of alloys. So they have been able to make some metal glass using specific alloys. If you remember, not too long ago, I don't know, maybe a year or so ago now, we talked about actual transparent aluminum. Remember that?

E: Yeah.

S: They made, it was an alloy of aluminum and other things. I think they had sapphire in there? But this was elemental germanium. And Phil, you are absolutely correct that they used extreme pressure ...

P: Ah-ha!

S: ... in order to get the germanium to cool without crystallizing. To keep its liquid amorphous structure ...

P: Oh!

S: ... as a solid.

P: That does make sense.

S: Yeah.

P: Okay, yeah yeah yeah.

S: What I could not find out though, is whether or not it's clear, it's transparent. It just says it has the properties of a glass. But it didn't specifically say if it was transparent.

P: I don't know if glass has to be transparent or not.

S: Yeah. It's doesn't have to be because you have ...

P: If it's a pure substance, I mean, I've got glass here. I've got some Libyan glass, which is impact glass from an asteroid impact ...

E: Cool!

P: ... in the desert, in the Sahara. And it's very sort of milky yellow and green.

S: Yeah, well, is it obsidian glass, and that's black!

P: Oh, yeah!

S: Yeah.

P: I have obsidian too! It's gorgeous! But yeah, you're right. It's glass!

S: Obsidian is cool. Yeah. And it's, and the name is so cool. Obsidian. I love it.

(Rogues laugh)

P: In fact, it was used as spear heads by Cro-Magnons! So there you go.

E: The Knights of the Obsidian Order.

S: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

P: I believe Cro-Magnon man used obsidian to ward off asteroids. So that ties all three of these together.

S: There we go.

E: Alright! So we're all correct in a way. No.

S: Alright, Phil, so congratulations.

P: Yay! Right for the wrong reason! I will take it!

S: (Laughs) Absolutely, take it!

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:19:31)[edit]

'There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.' - George Washington.

S: Alright, Jay, do you have a quote for us?

J: Steve, I have a quote sent in by a listener named Joel Stein. Joel is from Redding, California. And he sent me a quote in by George Washington, and here it is:

'There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.'

(Shouting) George Washington!

S: Yeah, isn't that, yeah, some story about not telling a lie about cutting down a cherry tree?

E: I think that's a lie.

P: He also stood up in a boat.

E: No, I hear that's a fiction too. He didn't stand up in that boat.

S: Probably everything is a fiction.

E: It was too cold that night, and he had a big, old, heavy coat, and he hunkered down like everybody else. But, the portrait tells otherwise.

S: Right. The portrait is history.

E: Right.

P: Is there any evidence he really existed?

E: Yes there is.

S: They still have his ivory teeth.

E: And there is a university named after him.

S: Sure there is some other stuff. (Evan snickers) Phil, Phil, I got a question for ya before we close up the show.

P: Sure.

S: Peter Capaldi, what do you think?

P: I'm all for it! I have never been disappointed in a new doctor. I have always been saddened by the last one leaving, and then the next person comes in, and I'm always like, "Well ..." But you know what? They wind up being awesome every time! So, I'm good.

S: Yeah, I think David Tennant is still my favorite. Like I said, everyone's supposed to have their one favorite Doctor. But, yeah! I'm looking forward to Peter Capaldi. First of all, he's in his 50's. So, he's our age.

P: Yeah.

S: And I think doctors have been getting too young recently. I think this is a good move.

P: Well, I was concerned. I wrote about this, saying if you go from Christopher Eccleston, to David Tennant, to Matt Smith, and extrapolate that, the 13th doctor's going to be a fetus. So, Peter Capaldi, I think, is gonna be interesting. And he's also put his foot down, and said, "No romance!" So ...

S: Yeah, I heard that. Yeah, he's not gonna have a romance with his much younger companion. Look forward to it. This is Doctor Who, by the way, if anyone doesn't know what we're talking about.

Well, Phil, always a pleasure to have you on the show. We have to do this more often.

P: This was fun! Yay!

B: Thanks, Phil!

S: Alright guys, thanks for joining me this week.

J: (Aristocratic accent) Thank you, Steve.

P: Thanks Steve!

E: (Aristocratic accent) Thank you doctor.

B: Surely Steve!

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

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

Today I Learned[edit]

  • A Coronal mass ejection nearly wiped out Earth's electronics two years ago[1]
  • Lungs have a surface area of 70 square meters[12]
  • Phil Plait said this was his first time winning science or fiction


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