SGU Episode 245

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SGU Episode 245
25th March 2010
Woman x.jpg
SGU 244 SGU 246
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
My brain is the key that sets my mind free
Harry Houdini
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday March 25th 2010 and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey Everybody.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey Guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, good evening. How is everyone.

ALL: Great.

J: How you doing Ev.

B: Oh, you're talking to us? Oh, we're good.

E: I'm talking to the wall.

S: Rebecca is off this week but it is not her fault. What happened was the power supply decided to short circuit for some reason and I was without a computer for a couple of days we had to delay, at the last minute we had to delay the recording date and Rebecca had a previous engagement, something to do with liable reform in the UK. So unfortunately she can't make it today.

J: Steve did you see and smell smoke?

S: I did and I heard that sound that you would hear on a soundtrack: this is the sound of electronics frying. That (zzzz, zzz, zzz) you know (sound effects) (laughter). It was literally and you know the lights on my computer were sort of flashing in time with the noise

J: Oh no.

S: Yeah.

B: So two days without a computer did you get like the DT's?

S: It was rough, it was rough. Then I had to hook everything back I have such a tangle behind my computer and of course I find a power supply that's hooked up to nothing and I have no memory of.

E: A power cord hooked up to...

S: Yeah, it's like it's plugged in and there's an end that should plug into something else but I have no idea...

J: What was it, like a camera or something? How many years ago did you use that thing?

S: or an old hard drive or something I don't know.

B: Maybe it was cloaked, you just couldn't see it.

S: Right.

E: It was connected to the could obviously.

J: You're lucky, your house could have caught on fire.

S: Yeah, It's a good thing I was at my computer when it happened so that I could unplug it right away

E: so we're back up and running.

S: back up and running. Tell us what's special about today Evan.

This Day in Skepticism ()[edit]

E: Well it was 1903 and the Times newspaper, it doesn't say what country though, maybe there's a Times newspaper in France because it was reported that French physicists Pierre Curie assisted by Madame Curie communicated to the academy of sciences that recently discovered radium, and I'm quoting now: "possesses the extraordinary property of continuously emitting heat without combustion, without chemical change of any kind and without any change to it's molecular structure which remains spectroscopicaly identical after many months of continuous emission of heat such that the pure radium salt would melt more that it's own weight of ice every hour. A small tube containing Radium if kept in contact with the skin for some hours produces an open sore by destroying the epidermis and the true skin beneath and the cause of death of living things who's nerve centres do not lie deep enough to be shielded from their influence.

J: Oh man that, that's scary.

E: Radiation baby.

S: Radiation.

B: Wow.

J: It's just weird to hear someone describe radiation that way.

S: Right, like they had no idea what it is.

E: Right, just kinda describing kinda what it does and, could cause death...

J: So do you guys think if you were exposed to enough radiation in order for it to do that to your skin could that give you cancer and kill you as well?

S: Oh yeah.

B: I think it depends on the radiation but yeah, my guess would be yeah.

S: It would certainly be a risk factor for cancer.

J: Oh man.

E: Radium, I mean, I'm no chemist but I understand that's pretty radioactive.

J: And sadly she died of radiation poisoning.

B: Yeah.

S: Yes, took one for the team.

E: Or how about those women who used to paint the phosphorous numbers on, what was it, watches or some sort of devices and they would lick the tips of their brushes as they dip it in the phosphorous, they paint it on and they got poisoned.

J: Oh yeah. How about that guy, Steve, was it the guy who was selling radioactive water when they thought radiation was nifty and you know like sci fi.

S: Well there was like a mussel man who was a shill for radioactive tonic which he drank and eventually his jaw was eaten away by radioactivity and he suffered horribly from it.

J: And didn't they remove his bottom jaw?

S: Yeah.

J: Or it fell off.

B: Ouch.

J: can you imagine.

B: how does one acquire radioactive liquid?

S: what they would do is they would literally have like a vase made out of radium

B: Oh

S: and the instructions were to put water in it over night and then drink water from the basin or vase or whatever that's how they would do it.

E: Come a long way in a hundred and ten years

S: Yeah (laughter). One quick announcement before we get on to the news items. April 17th Saturday 10AM New York City the NECSS con The North East Conference of Science and Skepticism you can go to the and register for the event get tickets while some are left. The speakers this year include James Randi, DJ Grothe, Jamy Ian Swiss, George Hrab, Steve Mirsky, David Gorski, Val Jones, John Snyder, Kimball Atwood, Julia Galef and the entire cast of the SGU. It's going to be a lot of fun you can also register for a speakers dinner where you get to sit down and have dinner with all of the speakers. So please check it out and register it's coming up pretty quickly.

News Items[edit]

Rise of the Dinosaurs (5:36)[edit]

S: So Bob tell us about the rise of the dinosaurs.

E: Oh no where! Oh you mean Oh, OK.

B: Yeah this was a pretty cool story um news item. Any fifth grader can probably tell you how the reign of the dinosaurs ended: the aliens came down, they seeded the earth with human DNA then ate all the dinosaurs. Wait, wait that's not the consensus yet. But you know what it is well if you ask the same kid how began their dominance you'd probably get a puzzled look more than anything else. So it's a bit ironic that just last month scientists made their most definitive statement yet about the fate of dinosaurs, that they almost certainly died from an asteroid and not from volcanism. Now an international team led by Brown university palaeobiologist Jessica Witeside They concluded that the other end of the dinosaur reign namely when they took over was caused almost certainly from volcanism and not an asteroid. The opposite. S: Right.

J: Bob so when you say volcanism what do you mean specifically.

B: you know Vulcans come. No Volcanoes, Volcanoes Jay just volcanoes and.

S: I'm just asking...

B: just volcanoes and vents in the earth that release lava, you know.

S: and gases.

B: Yeah gases.

J: gases.

B: 200 million years ago the earth was a bit different than it is today right. Most of the land masses...

S: That's what I hear.

B: Yeah, most of the land masses were smushed together into a super continent called...

J: Pangea.

B: Pangea, thank you which was actually, very good Jay, which was just actually starting to break up actually about 200 million years ago. It had been together for quite some time.

J: Well all relationships end at some point Bob.

B: But also at that time 200 million years ago crurotarsans ruled the planet crurotarsans were a branch of reptiles distinct from dinosaurs. You don't really hear too much about these guys they actually co-existed with dinosaurs and early proto dinosaurs for 30 million years but the early dinos were probably second class reptiles back then crurotarsans were the biggest most dominant animals during the Triassic period even in terms of sheer diversity they were ahead of their reptile cousins. The something happened, one of the great mass extinctions of all time occurred which ended the Triassic and ushered in the Jurassic and the scientists now believe that as the north American plate separated from the Africa plate, imagine these two plates have been together for quite some time and they start separating because the tectonic plates are, you know, slowly moving. So their slowly separating and it creates a basin, there's a basin that is created between them and which would later become the Atlantic ocean. In this basin there were fissures which released greenhouse gasses that wiped out half the plant species on the planet and many animals including most of the crurotarsans. So that pretty much what they think happened. But like any mass die off this opened up tons of ecological niches ripe for the dinosaurs to spread into and eventually led to their world domination for about, what, 200 million years. It was an amazing run that they had. So all of this started then not necessarily because they were inherently superior as many people believe but essentially they were really just lucky.

S: Yeah.

B: I'll give you a quote from Jessica Witeside she's the assistant professor of geological sciences. She says "They had the blind luck of being unwittingly adapted to get through that climate catastrophe. How they did it is quite difficult to explain." So that little bit of luck paved the way for world dominance for millions of years but we all know eventually right they all met a similar fate to the crurotarsans. They were wiped out 65 million years ago leaving only modern day birds in their wake. the crurotarsans left a legacy as well. Can you guys guess what their legacy is?

E: Um

J: twenty- nine

B: Close. You're very close Jay. No, actually you're not, you're so far away I don't know what to say. Their legacy is the twenty-three species of crocodiles, alligators and gharials that exist today. And even the number twenty-three surprised me there is actually 23. You think crocodile, Alligator there's actually 23 species of those guys so there's a lot and buy they were much more diverse 200 million years ago. Imagine if they weren't wiped out the species that they would have evolved into. Perhaps in tens of millions of years from now only a small residue of mammals will be left around. My sinical side guesses that that residue will probably consist of robotic terminators looking for that last bit of biology to wipe out.

S: Right. Now Bob this a consensus that's been building for a while because we, I think we talked about this like a year ago. The fact that the dinosaurs were just lucky,

B: Right.

S:In terms of beating the crurotarsans out. Right.

WOMAN X (10:25)[edit]

S: Well lets move onto another bit of paleontological news. This one is really interesting. Do you guys know how many different species of humans there have been on the earth?

B: four foot one.

J: How many species of humans?

E: Homo Sapiens, Homo Erectus,

B: Erectus, Sapiens.

E: Homo... Is Neanderthal one?

B: Habilis.

E: Oh right Homo Habilis.

B: There's a few of them but I know there's one more. (laughs)

S: So the genus has had Homo Habilus, Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens but if you're talking about close relative to Homo Sapiens, now weather or not you call them like Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis or Homo Neanderthalensis is I guess still... I'm not sure if that's actually been finally settled. I thought that there were two: Modern humans and Neanderthals. There's a third that's been controversial over the last few years but the evidence...

B: The Hobbit.

S: ... seems to be heading towards the fact that the hobbit, Homo Floresiensis nicknamed the hobbit may be a third human species. And a fourth...

J: What?

S: ...was possibly just discovered.

J: That's incredible.

B: This is really cool

J: Where was it he or she?

S: Yeah well this is. The specimen is called "Woman X"

B: Really?

S: Yes.


S: It has not been named as a species yet. The specemen comes from Siberia, about 40,000 years ago and they managed to isolate some DNA, specifically mitocondrial DNA from the...

B: Hence the Woman X. Right.

S: No. We both have mitochondria

B: but it's passed on, mitochondrial DNA is passed on through the mothers

S: yeah, It's only inherited mostly 99% or so, whatever, from the maternal line

B: that's my point.

S: Yeah but the specimen, that's not why we know the specimen's a woman though. But anyway they're working on the nuclear DNA they haven't nailed that yet but they, after analysing the micondrial DNA they basically were trying to figure out: was this specimen a Neanderthal or a modern human? And there's different genetic markers that we have that, we've sequenced enough of the Neanderthal genome. And it actually was neither. It's clearly human but not either Neanderthal or Homo Sapiens.

B: How awesome is that.

S: It's a fourth species. And they estimate, now this kind's of genetic estimation is rough there's a lot of assumptions that go into the analysis but based on the genetic analysis they estimate that this lineage broke off from the human lineage, from our ancestors, about one million years ago whereas Neanderthals split off about 500,000 years ago , half a million years ago. Ah, that's a long time ago yet it persisted till about 40,000 years ago. So 40,000 years ago there were four living human species.

B: Damn, we missed out.

S: Yeah.

B: It would have been so cool if there were more humans.

S: Within about 5,000 years three of them went extinct and we were the only ones left.

J: So Steve if they existed that short amount of time ago how come we haven't found more fossils?

S: Yeah that's a good question so, they think that this probably represents a completely separate migration of early human ancestors out of Africa and then for a million years they lived in isolation becoming there own species but then died out 40,000 years ago. So it seems as if each one of these human species may have been genetically isolated and formed there own species because they were separate migrations out of Africa. It probably just is that there range was not very far, they may have settled in, around Siberia but not spread out to Asia, Europe and whatever to the point that we would find a lot of their sites. The fossil sites that we have are so sporadic it makes you wonder, you know, maybe there are some of their sites out there that are waiting to be discovered.

B: I hope so.

J: Well you'd figure that there'd be more around the location where they found the original right?

S: That, obviously, would be a good place to look.

B: I'm sure you can bet you're but that they're going to start looking.

J: Steve did they find it by accident or did they predict that they would find something like this near there?

S: I don't think anyone predicted this. This is totally put of the blue that there's a new species

B: It was a pinky bone right just a pinky bone.

S: it was a pinky bone, yeah,

J: You know what? It's a good thing that I don't stumble on these bones. (laughter)

S: Most people would not recognise what they are.

J: I probably wouldn't even be able to recognise it as a bone if I saw it. You know I just wouldn't even.

B: Well we have micondrial DNA from Neanderthals right?

S: Yes.

B: So did anyone mention how different they were, you know, in comparison? You know was it vastly different from either of the other two or is it closer to Neanderthal than us or closer to us? Did any hint of that kind of relationship? S: Ah, it's different from both. You would imagine since it split off half a million years before Nennderthals and humans split off...

B: Right.

S: it would be equidistant from the two, from the two right. B: Right, hmmm.

S: And it looks like there were a lot of other homenid bones in the cave that they're investigating not just a pinky bone. Ah, and there were human settlements in the area as well

B: Interesting. Contemporary? I mean were they contemporaries?

S: Probably because it says there was occupation in that area for about 125,000 years so there was probably overlap

B: Yeah, I hope we find something more.

S: Yeah.

B: I want to see what they...

S: Yeah. I mean it makes sense, evolution's a bush not a ladder right so you expect these kind of speciation events to happen and humans were in the process of migrating around the world so I would expect you're going to get isolated, you know, populations here and there froming enough difference to be a different sub species or species so it kind of makes sense that we're going to find these

E: And maybe a fifth one some day.

S: Yeah I wouldn't be surprised, you know, some island somewhere or just in one region, you know if they were isolated long enough you could expect that. It would not be surprising at all.

Starchild update (17:05)[edit]

S: Well let's move on to the next item. This is also a palaentological item, it's sort of a theme this week, but this one's a fake item

E: (laughter)

S: Right Evan.

E: Can you spot the fake. That's right we have an update on the Starchild project. I have some theme music to go...

J: It's actually a project?

S: It's like the Alan Parsons Project.


(theme music plays - Starman by David Bowie)

E: There you go.


E: Some of our listeners may remember that tune from the 70's called Starman. So we've adopted that as the official theme music for the Starchild project update. Now who knew there was a Starchild project update? I thought this thing was put to bed so many years ago

S: Oh no, Lloyd Pi's not giving up on this one, no way.

E: Lloyd Pi is the man responsible for this. So here's what he has: he has in his possession a skull, a skull of a child and it shows some pretty, you know, interesting malformations uh, it's like a swollen head the facial caveties are kind of all crushed in towards the middle. Lloyd Pi believes that this is evidence of a, ah, of an alien race or an alien race that visited Earth and comingled with humans shall we say. So a hybrid of some kind.

J: A hybrid.

E: Half human.

J: Yeah, I would imagine that ah, if it looks so similar to a normal human skull a normal child's human skull yeah, it has to be some kind of mix right? Like what else, what else would the explanation be?

E: What else could the explanation be?

S: Interestingly so yeah this is um. Taken at face value, right, there are those who have accused this of actually being like a hoax or a fraud or, if we say alright the skull itself is genuine and I think it dates to about 600 years, ago?

E: 900 year.

S: 900 year.

E: plus or minus 40 years.

S: 900 years ago. It has all of the anatomical features of a human skull but distorted or deformed. They're all there, there's the pariatal bone, the temporal bone, the frontal bone, they're all there just deformed. Okams razor I think would dictate that this is therefore a deformed human skull. There's no pieces that are not supposed to be there, there's no significant pieces missing, You know if you were able to take a picture of a human skull and Photoshop it and move everything around this is, you could get to something like this.

B: plus it's made of bone too. It's not made out of some funky material.

S: They claim that there are these red fibres in there but again we don't have any analysis of them to tell us what they are.

E: although we do have the claim from Lloyd Pi that he has shared it with 50 experts, and he won't tell us who these experts are but that's OK. He's consulted 50 experts on it and none of them can adequately explain the Starchild's appearance on the basis of any kind of natural deformity.

S: Right

J: Aha

E: Can you spot the logical fallacy?

J: Yes.

S: Pi's entire approach to this project is a massive argument from ignorance. and he makes that fallacy over and over again. Initially they tried to extract nuclear DNA from the bone and they were able to extract...

E: Mitochondrial DNA

S: Well they were able to get, they were able to get Mitochondrial DNA that was from a human and it seems that that was the kid's mother. They were unable to extract nuclear DNA, this was a few years ago, and Lloyd Pi's conclusion was: the reason they couldn't extract nuclear DNA proves that it's not human.

B: Oh nice.

E: (laughter) um.

S: So the lack of evidence is evidence that this is not human.

J: So right out of the gate, you make a discovery like this you bring it to "experts" right. You let scientists look at it that do this for a living and have been doing it for a long time which he's failed to do. You know he's not...

B: I disagree, I disagree. You find something like this you put it on eBay. (laughter)

B: That's what I'd do.

E: This does pre-date eBay.

J: No Bob the Smithsonian would pay more for this than most people would imagine paying on eBay. But the .

S: Yeah

B: Well they could bid on it, they could...

J: The point is though, the point being that right out of the gate he's made poor decisions on top of poor decisions and that's if he's actually even being honest at all which I doubt.

E: Well Jay I think it's a good point and I think there may be a larger point to all this is that Lloyd pi has some pre conceived notions, right, and he is emphasizing certain points that, you know, help try to make his case and he downplays any evidence that contradicts what his personal values is. You know invested in this whole Star child project. So he's biased he's horribly biased

S: Oh yeah.

E: And that taints everything.

S: Remember this is the guy who wrote the book "Everything you know is wrong". (laughter)

S: Right this guy thinks everything scientists say is completely wrong. He wants to rewrite history and rewrite science

B: Oh one of those.

S: He's a total crank this guy, bottom line.

E: But just last week, and I'll read it in his own words, He says: "We finally have a recovery of nuclear DNA from the Starchild".

J: So what scientist confirmed it? Where's the information?

E: OK, well he met with the geneticist working on the Starchild's DNA and he notes and I quote again: "I should add that I can't reveal the name of the geneticist or where he works until we are ready to formally present the results."

J: Of course because that would ruin everything

E: Ehhhh yeah

J: This guy, this guy is full of shit. There we go. He is totally, he is totally marketing himself. This is all hype and no substance.

S: Probably yeah.

E: Al right so he admits that back in 2003 he had a DNA analysis that used human only primers to recover the mitochondrial DNA which is the DNA outside the nucleus but at the time they could not recover it because the technology at the time was limited

B: Lame.

E: Right. But now in 2010 there have been many improvements in the recovery process, those improvements have been applied to the starchilds skull with the stunning result. And he throws up some charts and he talks about sequencing and base pairs. Steve this is where you're probably going to have to jump in and explain a little bit but essentially what he's saying is that there's a strand of 342 base pairs to which they are not able to match it up to any animal in the NIH database which contains, I guess, all this information on all kinds of animals,

S: Yeah

E: And their genetic codes.

S: Right, Pi says every animal in the world and that's wrong I mean


S: He's trying to say that this database basically contains the genetic information of all living things on Earth and since this thing can't be matched to anything in the database that proves this is DNA not from the Earth.

J: Oh. This guy's a genius.

S: Yeah, again we don't know what this is therefore it's an alien. No, we don't know that this is therefore, what, we don't know what it is. And...

B: Plus 342 base pairs is nothing that's tiny. That could just be junk DNA that's not coding for anything that we know.

E: Lloyd Pi believes that to be a stunning and apparently incredibly rare occurrence.

S: Right. Now the thing is, I mean that is long enough to match up to known, you know we should b able to see if it were a human we should be able to find out where that's supposed to match up along the human genome. But certainly there could be things mixed up in there that are not from people and wouldn't necessarily be in that database. Who knows, it could got... They describe the process that's supposed to get rid of any contamination but if any bacterial DNA got in there that would throw it off. Also this analysis has not been pier reviewed. We don't even know who the geneticist is.

E: (laughter)

S: There's no transparency here whatsoever

E: He could be making this up wholesale, we'd have no idea.

S: or it could just be incompetence, problems with the process, you know, who knows. This is a negative result this is just nothing. Now here's the other thing: he consults all these experts, but if you read

E: probably

S: for those experts that have actually like you can say this is a quote of doctor so and so most of them are saying things which are, don't have anything to do with weather this is a human or an alien hybrid just like, this is 900 years old from the carbon 14 dating, that's what expert A is saying. That's one expert another one is saying, you know, that this looks like it come's from a child based on the teeth maybe 5 to 6 years old. That's another expert. But they're not saying anything at all that bears at all on whether on not this is a deformed human versus a human alien hybrid but he's counting them among the experts. There's only one so called expert, a cranial facial surgeon, who is actually, who has allegedly examined the skull directly and ruled out all the known medical deformities that could explain this skull. It's just this one guy, you know, and we don't, who seems to be invested in this.

E: Right. S: And we don't really know what his expertise is.

E: Hardly a scientific consensus.

S: Yeah.

J: I mean if you think about the hoopla this guy's making over a deformed skull, it's just a deformed skull. Obviously, if this is a real skull it was a child that had some type of genetic disease

S: Yeah, I mean, it could be in fact a very interest skull from a medical, you know, historical point of view. Maybe there were two things going on. Ah, you know what I mean like maybe hydrocephalus and they bound his head, maybe they thought that was a treatment for the hydrocephalus. Or he had some genetic disorder that had megalencephaly, you know an enlarged head. Whatever, some unique mutation that we don't see any more for some reason.

E: And Steve they discovered a y chromosome in the mix so they knew it was a boy

S: Aha

E: hence the y chromosome and nothing Lloyd Pi offers goes to explain how the y chromosome got in there.

S: Right so the y chromosome had to come from a human male and he also had a human mother and somehow Pi argues in his head that that means the father was alien.

J: What's so sad is that if they just brought this skull to one of the thousands of experts on the planet, give them an hour with it and they'll give you an arms length list of why everything he says is bullshit. Right, I mean it's that easy.

E: (laughs)

S: If this were serious


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


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