SGU Episode 220

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SGU Episode 220
7th Oct 2009
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 219                      SGU 221

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


DH: Daniel Hooper

BC: Brian Cox

Quote of the Week

When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.

David Hume

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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 October 7th 2009 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 Berstein

This Day in Skepticism (0:29)[edit]

E: October 7 1952 - the first patent for the barcode was issued to inventors Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver

J: Ah. That explains Google.

B: That's why Google had the barcode.

E: Thank you, yes. Everyone listening to the show, I'm sure, used Google at some point today and saw the barcode. I went a step further and figured out, why the barcode.

R: By clicking on the logo. Good job.

E: Here's what a podcast would sound like if it were a barcode: big line, little line, little line, little line, big line, little line, little line, big line, big line, little line.

S: Podcast in binary.

J: Are we going to talk about this because I know a shit load of stuff about barcodes.

S: Anything interesting?


R: Not a single thing.

B: Yeah, make it compelling Jay.

J: Uh...

E: How about this? The first barcode was not in straight lines. What were the shapes of the quote-unquote "bars"?

S: Um... wavy lines?

E: Circles!

S: Really? Circles?

E: A series of concentric circles.

S: I can tell you that um-

B: Ah, yes.

E: Made like a bullseye... sort of symbol.

B: Excellent, yeah yeah yeah. I remember that.

S: The number 666 does not appear before every barcode, that's just the bracketing code, it's not the number 666 actually.

E: Just special ones...

R: But don't be fooled, barcodes are still instrumental in Armageddon.

S: Oh yeah, still the mark of the beast, absolutely.

E: No doubt.

B: You know if I was gonna get a tattoo, I always say I would get a tattoo of a barcode on the bottom of my foot.

S: Mmm-hm.

E: Uh-huh...

J: (sarcastically) That's crazy...

B: Yeah, I'm just sayin'.

J: That's kinda silly because the barcode would be perfectly meaningless, it wouldn't be like you actually have your barcode.

B: I would do it just for the humor Jay.

J: OK.

S: Just for the coroner who does your autopsy? Just so he gets a big laugh?

B: Yep. That's it.

In Memoriam: Basava Premanand (2:13)[edit]

S: One quick and sad update from last week: we talked about Premanand, the Indian James Randi and how he was sick with cancer and on his deathbed. [He] put out a proclamation saying "No deathbed conversions for me." Basically, "I remained dedicated to rationalism to the end", and we did hear the news that he did pass away since the last episode, which is very unfortunate, but-

E: October 4th, yeah.

S: He lived a full and fulfilling life by all accounts, so, good for him.

News Items[edit]

SGU Update[edit]

R: I have another update from the last show actually.

S: OK.

R: I'm on this show now.

S: Yes.

R: And it's 2 in the morning.

S: That's right.

E: That's right.

S: Rebecca is in London-

R: Just like to point that out.

S: It's 2 in the morning there. And uh-

R: In case listeners were wondering why I'm whispering.

S: And why she sounds half comatose, right.

R: It's not just because I have a sore throat from TAM London, which I do, but also because yeah, it's 2 in the morning.

J: But Rebecca, can't you just go in the other room?

R: There is no other room.

E: A one room flat!

S: But how was TAM London?

R: TAM London was remarkable, or amazing, if you will. It was a huge success, the speakers were fantastic, and everything went off without a hitch. I managed to record a number of interviews with different speakers and even guests at TAM London, and we'll have some audio of those on the show, both on this episode and more coming up later. But it was a lot of fun - two thumbs up!

S: Excellent, awesome. Sounds like they're gonna be doing this again in the future right, this is not gonna be an isolated event?

R: They pretty much have to at this point, I think, because it was, this TAM London sold out in something like 15 minutes.

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah. It was fast.

R: I think that a response like that demands a TAM London part two.

E: Even bigger and better hopefully.

R: Hopefully, yeah.

S: A bigger venue.

R: Yeah definitely.

S: Well, if enough of our UK listeners wanna bring us out there, maybe the SGU will show up next year.

R: Yeah.

E: Maybe.

B: That would be awesome.

S: You never know.

Nobel Prizes 2009 (4:20)[edit]

S: Well, it is that time of year again for the Nobel Prizes, and a few have already been announced. The Nobel Prize for medicine was given to three individuals - Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szotak, might be "Schostak", I'm not sure- "S" "z", what do you think? "S-z-o-t-a-k"? "Sostak"?

E: Eh... "Sostak", yeah.

S: For the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. So, these are like these basic aspects of biology that I learned in college and medical school - so it's always interesting to hear, you know it's like decades later they get the Nobel Prize-

E: Yeah.

S: for something I always took for granted, it's interesting. But absolutely, I mean, telomeres are now a fundamental part of our understanding of chromosomes, so again, the DNA, the genetic material in each one of our cells is divided up into different chromosomes.

B: They're like end caps right? They're like little protective end-caps.

S: In fact, I think Elizabeth Blackburn used the analogy they're like the little tabs at the end of shoelaces, right-

E: Oh yeah.

R: Aglets.

S: they keep it from unwinding. But also, when a chromosome gets copied, the process can't copy the very end of the chromosome - the very end of the chromosome gets left off. So if there were genes coding genes all the way to the end, every time it got copied a little bit of important genetic information would get left off. For a while that was considered to be like the 'chromosome problem', you know, what is the solution to this? The discovery of telomeres solved this problem because there's essentially this non-coding, repetitive DNA cap at the end of each chromosome and when the chromosome gets copied, a little bit of the telomere gets left off, but that's okay because it's just this filler cap at the end anyway. Now, telomerase actually expands the telomere, so the telomere gets - you lose a little bit when it gets copied, but it can be reproduced, you know, you can build back some of the telomere with telomrase, so. The understanding of telomeres also was instrumental in understanding how some cancers work. Some cell lines become immortal, they don't stop growing, and that's one of the features of cancer. Critical, basic science understanding of how our chromosomes work and many applications in terms of medicine, so not surprising that they earned a Nobel Prize. You guys know how much the Nobel Prize award is up to?

B: Yeah, almost to one and a half million. 1.4.

S: Yeah. 1.4 million.

J: I didn't know that they gave money with that.

E: Hell yeah, nice chunk of it.

R: You though it was just bragging rights?

J: Yeah. Which is pretty kick-ass as it is, but oh my god, 1.5 million?

B: 1.4, yeah.

S: 1.4.

J: Do they give any Nobel Prizes out for a podcast?

B: Not in this reality.

E: Not yet, but, hey...

S: That's right. The next award, the one, Nobel Prize in chemistry 2009 was, one of the three people is from Yale University.

E: Yay! Do you know him?

S: No.

E: You do now!

S: I do now! The Nobel Prize in chemistry was given to, again three people, Venkatraman Radhakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath for understanding the structure and fucntion of the ribosome, so even though this is chemistry, it's really biochemistry. The ribosome is an organelle, it's inside pretty much every living cell. What ribosomes do is they translate RNA - so first you know, DNA gets transcribed into various forms of RNA - RNA is like the set of instructions that runs through the ribosome and the ribosome will build a protein based upon the instructions in the RNA. So that's what the ribosome does it's the protein factory.

B: Kind of important.

S: Kind of important, yeah. Basically the biochemical factory that builds life, right.

B: It's a little nano machine.

E: Yeah, it's a little important.

S: Right, it's central to our understanding of biology, really, ribosome. Again, numerous applications. Interestingly the one application that I've, in all the news reports - probably because it was in the press release - that people mention is some antibiotics function by targeting bacterial ribosomes which are different than you carry ribosomes, so different than the host cells, so we can stop bacteria from reproducing by stopping the ribosomes from functioning. So some antibiotics function that way. Yep, certainly sounds worthy of a Nobel Prize to me.

E: Steve, there's a Howard Hughes Medical Institute? At Yale?

S: Oh yeah. Yeah, if you have millions, billions of dollars you can have lots of stuff named after you.

R: Well he was very into medical research, that's why he kept all those jars of his own urine.

E: Yeah, and wore tissue boxes on his feet.

R: And long fingernails.

E: Never clipped his nails.

B: Simpsons, Simpsons, yes! Awesome episode.

S: No seriously, you know, Howard Hughes had mental illness, so we really shouldn't make fun of someone's mental illness. A very tragic story, the guy was-

B: We're making fun of The Simpsons.

R: Oh come on.

E: Yes. Yes, yes. it was The Simpsons.

S: But seriously, we can because it's pop culture-

E: He's dead now.

R: It's been long enough.

S: I do wanna mention that Howard Hughes was a very successful, brilliant, you know, man whose life was really tragically altered by mental illness and that's part of the reason why it really bugs me when people are like mental illness deniers, they say like psychiatric diseases don't exist. The course of this guy's life was significantly altered by mental illness, as with a lot of people, so I just wanted to point that out.

B: He probably today couldn't have fixed by one pill a day.

S: Yeah, that's another thing, you know - exactly, he might have been, on the right medication he could've had a completely different outcome.

E: I wonder if it played into his inspiration for all the things he accomplished in his life though at all, I mean if you took that aspect out what else would've been different, would've changed. I don't know but-

S: That's a very good point. It's a good point. And there in fact was a recent study which showed that brilliance and insanity, if you will, can go hand in hand in certain individuals. And Bob, you're gonna tell us about the Nobel Prize in physics for 2009.

B: Yeah, congratulations to Charles Kao, Willard Boyle and George Smith, like some of Steve's Science or Fiction segments, this year's Nobel Prize for physics had a theme, like light technology, when Gunnar Öquist - who's the academy's secretary general - when he announced the winners recently he said that the work of the physics winners has built the foundation to our modern information society and he wasn't exaggerating. The first half of the 1.4 million dollars goes to the engineer Charles Kao, I think that's how you pronounce it-

S: "K-a-o". "Kao".

B: "Kao". I don't like that pronunciation. for him they said specifically "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication". In fact he is widely regarded as the father of fibre-optic communications, even though in the mid-60s when he came on the scene, he didn't invent this - fibre-optics already existed, but their applications were very very local - they would only work for 20 metres or so, and the light would just attenuate into nothingness. So they did have certain applications, especially medical applications, but for long distance communications they were worthless really. And the common wisdom at the time was imperfections in the glass were scattering the light. But this guy realised that this wasn't a manufacturing problem, it was that the glass wasn't pure enough, and it was his idea to fuse cords to make it a more transparent medium. And when he initially presented this paper in the late 60s he got laughed pretty much off the stage because it was just so hard for people to think that he could make such a huge difference, and I guess he's been kinda laughing for the past 30 or 40 years. The estimate that a lot of articles like throwing around is that now 600 million miles of fibre-optics, of fibre etching the surface of the Earth. I figured that that would get somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, or about 25,000 times around the Earth. And if you actually shone laser through that fibre, it would take 80 minutes to go all the way through it if it was just a straight go. And here's another interesting one - that number is increasing by thousands of kilometres every hour, so you couldn't even out-race it with a car, it's just expanding by such a huge amount.

S: Yeah. And the basic concept, for a little bit of background,

Ardipithecus Ramidis ()[edit]

  • Neurologica: [1]

Autism Prevalence ()[edit]

  • Neurologica: [2]

Interview with Daniel Hooper ()[edit]

Interview with Brian Cox ()[edit]

  • Brian Cox is a physicist who works at the Large Hadron Collider

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: For the first time, scientists have created a device that allows for direct brain to brain information transfer, without any intermediary medium. Item #2: Doctors report a case of a man whose skull has grown back after a large section has been removed years earlier. Item #3: Scientists have developed a vaccine against cocaine that reduces drug use in over a third of those treated.

Who's That Noisy? ()[edit]

Answer to last week: Charles Krauthammer

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.

David Hume

Announcements ()[edit]

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at 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 voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.


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